What to make of college football’s Week 10
No. 2 Alabama took five drives and nearly 24 minutes to score a point against LSU, and white-knuckled to a six-point win.
No. 3 Michigan State gave up 536 passing yards to a pedestrian Purdue team and suffered its first loss of the season.
No. 4 Oregon slogged through a chilly night in Seattle against unranked Washington, clinching the game on a safety in the last two minutes.
No. 5 Ohio State needed a few late-game gambles by Ryan Day to clinch a win at Nebraska, finally clinching with a field goal with 1:29 remaining.
No. 6 Cincinnati stopped Tulsa eight times from within the 12-yard line in the game’s final three minutes, not clinching the game until it recovered a Tulsa fourth-down fumble in the end zone.
You’ve heard about Separation Saturday? Well, this was Slog Saturday in college football. We’ve already embraced and accepted No. 1 Georgia (8-0) as the favorite — not infallible, just the favorite — to win the national title. The No. 1 Bulldogs eviscerated Missouri, 43-6, on Saturday.
After that, we experienced and endured a day that made any bold proclamations or certainties from the first release of the College Football Playoff rankings feel premature. In a perpetually flawed postseason system where style points are often required, this weekend showed that they may in short supply for the rest of the season.
This volatile 2021 season still may end up with blue bloods filling a majority of the four playoff spots, but the way they get there won’t be predictable. This season is about survival, not style.
Nothing may be more indicative of that than Michigan State, which got mowed over by Purdue on Saturday and still ends up in reasonable shape to make the College Football Playoff. Win out, which would include a victory at Ohio State and beating Penn State, and the Spartans will end up in the top four. They shouldn’t drop below No. 6 on Tuesday.
So who are the four best teams? You are better off asking a tarot card reader the meaning of life. You’ll get a more concise answer.
This is going to be a slobber-knocker to the finish, a war of attrition and decisions will be made through the CFP committee’s gritted teeth. The only thing that’s clear at this juncture is that definitive clarity in the 2021 playoff will only be held by partisan parties. This is already a mess, as Saturday showed. There’s no clear second-best team, never mind No. 3 or No. 4.
Michigan State’s loss meant there are just four undefeated teams left in college football — Cincinnati, Georgia, Oklahoma and UTSA. The team that may have helped itself the most on Saturday was Oklahoma, which had a bye and watched the chaos unfold from the couch. (Do you put one-loss Michigan State ahead of the Sooners? You have to put them ahead of No. 7 Michigan because of head-to-head.)
The day began with Ohio State looking mortal against Nebraska in Lincoln, requiring a pair of defensive stops after Nebraska cut the lead to six points in the fourth quarter.
The day continued with Cincinnati sputtering in the second half and holding on against Tulsa, 28-20. In that frozen moment, that appeared to be a setback for the Bearcats, for whom style points are perhaps the most important as their remaining level of competition isn’t comparable to those they’ll be compared with the rest of the way.
By the end of the day Cincinnati’s relative struggles looked like everyone else. Michigan State got dusted, Alabama sputtered, Oregon slogged around and Ohio State looked pedestrian. It’d be surprising if the Bearcats weren’t No. 5 this week, as they have a signature win the same caliber of Michigan State (Notre Dame for Cincy and Michigan for MSU) and no losses. As this season stammers to the finish, it will be interesting how much value is put in not losing.
Oregon won a tough game on the road at Washington, so penalizing them for style would be silly. Considering them sort of shoe-in to win out would also be naïve. Alabama still beat LSU, but this Crimson Tide team still doesn’t appear to be as crisp, talented or consistent as most of Saban’s recent teams. Ohio State has found some answers on defense, but its offense has shown a recent penchant to fail to finish drives against decent competition.
We’ll know a lot more about No. 8 Oklahoma this week, as it’ll travel to No. 12 Baylor for a team that appears built to potentially push them around.
There’s a real chance that an outlier team could catapult to the No. 4 spot. No. 7 Michigan (8-1) got back to winning against Indiana, No. 11 Oklahoma State (8-1) has the remaining schedule to make a case with Oklahoma and a potential Big 12 title game to state their case. No. 10 Notre Dame’s (8-1) only loss is to No. 6 Cincinnati, which means they can’t be completely written off. (This is the year Notre Dame could really use that 13th data point, as it doesn’t play any ranked teams.)
No. 9 Wake Forest and No. 12 Baylor both bowed out with losses this weekend.
This weekend reminded us the only thing we know is that we don’t know much. And that’s the beauty of the madness.
Dan Mullen suffered the worst loss of his 13-year head coaching career on Saturday, the type of paradigm-changing defeat that could alter the evaluation matrix of his tenure as Florida’s head coach.
Florida has lost eight of its past 10 games against Power Five opponents, but none of those defeats matched the Gators’ 40-17 loss in tenor and hopelessness.
Prior to Saturday, it was safe to project that Florida’s staff would undergo a significant overhaul this winter. A new defensive coordinator was an inevitability, as Todd Grantham’s tenure in Gainesville clearly should have ended after 2020. The rest of the staff was going to be closely evaluated to address the program’s weakness on the recruiting trail, which has been magnified thanks to Georgia’s dominance
But things got so sideways on Saturday that Mullen’s job status has been ushered into the conversation in Gainesville, as Florida lost its third straight game and fell to 4-5. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin isn’t a knee-jerk leader, as he never wavered as Mullen built a program at Mississippi State that consistently competed for bowls and eventually emerged as the No. 1 team in the country for a run in 2014. Stricklin has consistently showed patience with Mullen at two stops in his career, but Florida’s on-field performance may push this decision into the crosshairs.
Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik summed up Mullen’s future this way on the SEC Network on Saturday night: “They are in crisis mode in Gainesville right now,” he said. “Tonight wasn’t just a loss, it was an embarrassing loss.”
Mullen was contrite in the loss, saying he was “very disappointed” in the way that Florida played. Florida had more than 20 players miss practice after a flu bug run through the team, with quarterback Emory Jones flying up separate from the team on Saturday. But the lopsided result dimmed any outside factors that may have contributed.
The reality Mullen faces as he finishes with Samford, Missouri and Florida State is that there’s going to be extreme fan, media and booster pressure for seismic change. The hope for Mullen had been that he could pitch a future with the supremely talented Anthony Richardson at quarterback and a path back to being competitive in the SEC. He’s won 71% of his games at the school (33-14), including a Peach Bowl and Orange Bowl, so there’s some goodwill built.
But he’s going to have endure a lot of noise to get to that future path. Stricklin’s reputation is as a pragmatic leader, but the same can’t be said historically for those at Florida at the donor level. And that’s a compelling variable as Mullen’s future is tracked closely in the final weeks.
One of the weekend’s most dispiriting performances came from one of the country’s most tenuous coaching situations. That’s not a good sign for Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente.
Virginia Tech completed just one first-half pass, failed to score a touchdown and looked generally listless and disorganized in a 17-3 loss at Boston College. (Starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister left the game in the first quarterback with an injury and didn’t return.)
It marked Boston College’s first ACC win of the season and dropped Virginia Tech to 4-5 and in danger of its third losing season in four years. Even if the Hokies can get to .500 or win out against Duke, Miami and Virginia, there’s not a particularly compelling case to keep Fuente. Virginia Tech has regressed to the point where they’ve slipped out of contention and relevance in the ACC, never mind the national football conversation.
Postgame, Feunte referenced three losses this season where the Hokies have “had our hearts ripped out on the last play of the game.” After an adrenaline shot from the opening win over North Carolina, there’s been little inspiring about these Hokies. Year 6 under Fuente hasn’t offered any compelling evidence he should be invited back for Year 7.
There are complications, as always. If Virginia Tech decides to fire Fuente, they’d owe him $10 million when the regular season concludes. That would drop to $7.5 million after Dec. 15. That’s not an insignificant amount of money, but it puts the Tech administration into an awkward position of firing him and paying an extra $2.5 million for not waiting essentially three weeks after the regular season ends on Nov. 27.
The only drama about Fuente’s future will be how and when it unwinds.
Frost stays cold
When Nebraska (3-7) fans scrounge for positives from the Scott Frost era years from now, the nicest thing they’d be able to say is that he kept the Huskers in a lot of games.
That happened again on Saturday, before the predictable special teams mishap, questionable game management and inevitable oh-so-close loss once No. 5 Ohio State closed the door on a 26-17 loss to the Buckeyes. Frost is 5-19 in one-possession games during his tenure at Nebraska and 0-7 this season.
The reality of Nebraska is that a program with elite history and enormous resources is on the cusp of missing a bowl for its fourth consecutive season under Frost and fifth overall. The biggest win from the Frost era was convincing him to come to Lincoln after his undefeated season at UCF, and really nothing else has gone well since. That includes an NCAA investigation and aura of hopeless that’s the polar opposite of the optimism of the homegrown hero returning home.
Frost’s best moment this year may have been succinctly summing up his own shortcomings after the loss to Illinois. He described Nebraska’s struggles as “the same movie,” and it has played out again in theaters around the Big Ten in 2021.
Nebraska’s last back-to-back stretch without a bowl came in the late 1960s, as there’s nothing in the program’s modern history that compares to this rut. It’s a stunning stretch of ineptitude for a place where there’s enough money to buy three wins a year and their division is an annual ode to mediocrity. That will be Scott Frost’s legacy when Trev Alberts fires him in Nebraska — losing so many close games that he’s managed to place Nebraska far from relevancy.
It’ll cost $20 million to fire Frost. But it’s become obvious that the Cornhuskers can’t afford to keep watching the same movie.
Lake in hot water?
Washington coach Jimmy Lake’s poor season has hit a spiral in recent days. The Huskies are 4-5 after losing to Oregon 26-16 on Saturday, and Lake’s issues are both on and off the field.
The biggest issue for Lake came when he appeared to make physical contact on the sideline with Washington redshirt freshman linebacker Ruperake Fuavai. Lake charged up the sideline and brushed past an official to help separate Fuavia from an Oregon player. In video replays, Lake appears to make contact with Fuavia’s facemask as he clears him away and then appears to push him in the back in an effort to clear him from the scene.
The incident drew the attention of Washington Athletic Director Jen Cohen, who said the athletic department is looking into the matter. In a statement to the media after the game, she said: “We are aware of an interaction between Head Coach Jimmy Lake and a student-athlete during the first half of Saturday’s game. We have high expectations of the conduct of our coaches and we are working to gather more information on this matter.”
Lake’s coaching mistake late in the fourth quarter amplified an unfortunate quote from Lake earlier in the week. Lake made the baffling decision to punt with 1:59 remaining in the game and Washington trailing by eight. That backfired spectacularly, as the snap went through the end zone for a safety and sealed the loss.
The sequence brought back a flood of social media commentary on Lake’s bizarre comments earlier in the week that drew scrutiny from around the country and mockery from Oregon’s president.
Lake downplayed any recruiting rivalry with Oregon by insinuating that Washington recruited against academic peers like Notre Dame, Washington and USC. Lake said: “In our world, we battle more academically prowess teams.”
Lake didn’t flash the coaching prowess on Saturday. And now his actions on the sideline and words off it have shrouded his tenure.