Some of the widely held assumptions about this college football season went down Saturday, much like Leonard Fournette getting buried beneath a pile of Alabama tacklers. The result? More clarity in some cases, more questions in others and a much clearer understanding of how it could be possible to go from 10 undefeated teams on Saturday morning to one or none when the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its final rankings on Dec. 6.
First, let’s run down the list of assumptions that exploded Saturday …
LSU tailback Fournette will run away with the Heisman Trophy.
Not after 31 yards on 19 carries in a 30–16 loss at Alabama that wasn’t really as close as the final score suggests. Fournette might still win the trophy. After all, he is still averaging 172.9 rushing yards a game. But his inability to help his team in its most important regular-season game will stick in a lot of voters’ minds. It certainly didn’t help Fournette’s cause that Alabama running back Derrick Henry carried 38 times for 210 yards with three touchdowns. Henry made a strong case that if any back from the SEC West should be considered for the Heisman, it should be him.
TCU will be undefeated when it meets Baylor on Nov. 27, and if Fournette doesn’t win the Heisman, Horned Frogs quarterback Trevone Boykin will.
Oklahoma State hammered the Frogs 49–29 in Stillwater this week. Boykin threw one touchdown pass along with four interceptions. While this outing neither eliminated TCU from the playoff hunt nor Boykin from the Heisman race, it did confirm some early-season fears that Gary Patterson doesn’t have one of his better defenses. With games against Oklahoma and Baylor—both at home—still remaining, the Frogs will have to get better on that side of the ball and cut down on their turnovers. If they don’t, they could find themselves on the business end of two more lopsided scores.
Like Fournette, Boykin could play his way back into the thick of the Heisman race. But that competition is now wide open. So welcome, Derrick Henry, Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey, Keenan Reynolds and everyone else who would like to visit New York in early December.
Oklahoma State was lucky to get to 8–0, and the best teams from the Big 12 will expose the Cowboys.
Yes, Oklahoma State needed some good fortune to beat Texas and Kansas State, but there was nothing lucky about what the Cowboys did to TCU. Coordinator Glenn Spencer’s defense excels at pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers, and opposing defenses struggle to deal with an Oklahoma State offense that rotates two quarterbacks with differing skill sets in harmony. The Cowboys get Baylor (Nov. 21) and Oklahoma (Nov. 28) in Stillwater, and it might be time to start looking at them as the favorites to emerge from the Big 12’s November mêlée with the league title. But before the Cowboys worry about the two heavyweights still on their schedule, they face an Admiral Ackbar Special this week at Iowa State.
Oklahoma State, perhaps more than any other program, should understand the danger of a late-season visit to Ames with bigger matchups looming down the line.
Michigan State will be undefeated when it meets Ohio State on Nov. 21.
You can complain about the officiating that allowed a late Nebraska touchdown after receiver Brandon Reilly went out of bounds—he was ruled to have been pushed out—before coming back in and catching the game-winning 30-yard pass. Heck, even Nebraska coach Mike Riley seemed surprised that the touchdown was allowed to stand. But Michigan State made plenty of crushing mistakes in the plays leading up to that call, and the Spartans had lived dangerously for most of the season. Plus, it’s quite possible this was a case of the universe seeking some balance. Nebraska has had some of the worst luck a team can have this fall. Michigan State was the beneficiary of one of the most fortuitous bad snaps in college football history.
Does the Spartans’ 39–38 loss in Lincoln mean Michigan State can’t beat Ohio State in Columbus? Of course not. We’ve all seen the Buckeyes play this season. Nothing feels like a guarantee in the Big Ten anymore. That includes whether Nebraska will reach a bowl. The Cornhuskers started 3–6, which meant they needed wins over Michigan State, Rutgers and Iowa to become bowl eligible. Beating the Hawkeyes on Black Friday still seems like a huge task, but after Nebraska downed Michigan State it’d be unwise to rule out anything. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst fired Bo Pelini and hired Mike Riley so Nebraska could win the big games, and Riley just won a huge one. Now, Riley just has to figure out how to beat the Purdues of the world. The Huskers can start this week by winning a game they should in New Jersey.
Memphis will win the American Athletic Conference, go undefeated and dare the selection committee to leave it out of the playoff.
The Tigers’ playoff hopes took a serious blow just after they kicked off against Navy. Memphis needed Ole Miss—a team it beat 37–24 on Oct. 17—to win the SEC and force the committee into a choice between the SEC champ and the undefeated team that beat the SEC champ. But the Rebels ceded control of their SEC destiny following a wild 53–52 loss to Arkansas. Now they’ll need to win out and hope Mississippi State or Auburn beats Alabama. Not that it matters for Memphis regardless. The Tigers couldn’t stop Navy’s option and fell 45–20 on Saturday.
Memphis isn’t out of the hunt for a big-money bowl slot, but its chances are on life support. It now faces trips to Houston (8–0) and Temple (8–1), and it needs Navy—which somehow managed to land in the American’s West Division despite being one of the conference’s easternmost schools—to stumble down the stretch. (SEC East member Missouri approves of the geographical gymnastics involved here.) Memphis needs to win those tough games and needs Navy to lose (either to SMU, at Tulsa or at Houston) to reach the league championship game. That’s a big ask.
Now that we’ve shed those assumptions, let’s offer something we can safely assume.
The number of undefeated teams fell from 10 to six (Baylor, Clemson, Houston, Iowa, Ohio State and Oklahoma State) on Saturday. If all of these teams continue to win, the highest possible number that can remain unbeaten at season’s end is four. (Baylor plays Oklahoma State on Nov. 21, and Iowa and Ohio State would meet in the Big Ten championship game.) It’s more likely that most of these teams will lose. Houston has to play Memphis, Navy and potentially Temple in the American’s title game. Ohio State has to play Michigan State and Michigan in consecutive weeks. Even Clemson—which appears to have the cleanest path to an undefeated regular season—is on a collision course with a suddenly ferocious North Carolina, which routed Duke 66–31 this week. It’s easy to see how this year’s playoff could look much like last year’s, with one undefeated team and three one-loss squads.
A lot of people raised on the poll and BCS systems can’t seem to wrap their brains around the possibility that a one-loss team might still be the nation’s best, but it’s entirely feasible. Last year, losing to Virginia Tech in September helped make Ohio State the force it was at the end of the season. The same may prove true for North Carolina (season-opening loss to South Carolina), Stanford (season-opening loss at Northwestern), Alabama (home loss to Ole Miss), Notre Dame (loss at Clemson), Michigan State (loss at Nebraska) or TCU (loss at Oklahoma State). “Sometimes the best time to teach—and I hate to say this—is when things don’t go well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Saturday when asked about his team’s lone blemish. “Don’t ask me why, but people seem to respond a lot better when things don’t go well than they do when things are going well. That game taught this team a lot in terms of what they needed to do to develop the kind of consistency and performance that we need to have a good team.”
The committee will likely be forced to decide which one-loss teams learned the most from their defeats. That won’t satisfy the people who would prefer a nice, tidy, undefeated-on-undefeated playoff field, but it might satisfy those who would like to see the best four teams play on Dec. 31.
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Clemson (9–0)
The Tigers struggled to score on a Florida State defense with budding young stars rapidly rounding into form for most of Saturday’s game. (If you’re looking ahead to 2016, just know that the Seminoles’ defense is going to be naaasty and plan accordingly.) Clemson’s defense carried the day back here in ’15, though, and the Tigers clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title behind a 23–13 win. Clemson has the clearest path of any team to an undefeated season, but the rapid improvement of potential ACC title game foe North Carolina could make things interesting.
2. Oklahoma State (9–0)
I thought about putting Alabama here after the Crimson Tide’s demolition of LSU, but Oklahoma State’s clobbering of TCU might have been just as impressive. Sure, the Cowboys were really lucky to previously beat Texas and Kansas State, but they didn’t actually lose those games. On Sept. 19 Bama committed five turnovers and lost at home to Ole Miss, which now has three losses. This isn’t much of a statement, anyway. I’m ranking Alabama just below the Cowboys, and if the field ends up this way on Dec. 6, they’d get to settle things on the field at Jerry World in the Cotton Bowl.
3. Alabama (8–1)
The Crimson Tide were stunningly impressive in Saturday’s win over LSU. Keeping Fournette bottled up was something that looked impossible for two months, and Alabama made it appear easy. But we also must bear in mind that this is the best Bama has looked. The Tide also have that loss to Ole Miss and a narrow victory over a Tennessee team that is 5–4. Alabama’s average performance is probably somewhere in between the LSU and Ole Miss games, but if it continues trending upward, it may end up closer to the LSU outing than the Ole Miss one. And that would make the Tide the team no one wants to see in the playoff.
4. Notre Dame (8–1)
The Fighting Irish wins over Navy, USC, Pittsburgh and Temple are better than just about anything on Ohio State’s résumé. That is subject to change if the Buckeyes beat Michigan State and Michigan in back-to-back games, but maybe we should wait until that actually happens before placing them in the top four. I’ve given Ohio State and Baylor the benefit of the doubt in recent weeks, but it would probably be fairer to wait until those teams earn it on the field. The good news? Both have chances to do just that in the next few weeks.
A random ranking
I was out of town for work this weekend when the family rented Inside Out. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and when I mentioned this to editor Ben Glicksman, he mentioned that a debate has raged in the office these past few weeks about the identity of the best Pixar movie. We’ll leave Inside Out off this list until I can watch it. Otherwise, here is my ranking of all the Pixar films that came before it. Please don’t assume a low ranking means a movie on this list is bad. The only bad movie Pixar ever made is Cars 2.
1. Finding Nemo
2. Toy Story
4. Toy Story 3
5. The Incredibles
7. Monsters Inc.
8. A Bug’s Life
12. Toy Story 2
13. Monsters University
14. Cars 2
*The rest of Up doesn’t quite hold up to its masterful first four minutes. As I wrote when I ranked it my favorite opening sequence ever, if you can get through that without choking up, you probably lack a soul.
Big Ugly of the Week
Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson did not know why everyone was so surprised that he hurdled LSU’s entire line to block an extra point. Apparently, we’ve all missed a show on the basketball court. “I’ve been dunking since the seventh grade,” the 6′ 4″, 312-pounder from Forth Worth, Texas, said after Saturday night’s win over LSU. “I haven’t always been this big, but I still can dunk now.”
Even more impressive than his extra point block or his appearance as an extra blocker on offense was Robinson’s contribution to the shutdown of Fournette. Robinson is that rarest breed of defensive lineman. He is big enough and strong enough to occupy two gaps, but also quick enough to get off blocks and make tackles. He had three tackles Saturday night—two for loss—but he and his linemates spent most of the night clogging gaps so linebackers and safeties could hammer Fournette.
1. The situation at Missouri is far too complex to examine in this space, but SI will have more in-depth coverage as the week goes on. A group of black football players at the school has pledged to boycott football activities until University of Missouri system president Timothy Wolfe steps down. The players are supporting a campus group called Concerned Student 1950 that believes Wolfe has offered an inadequate response to a recent series of racist incidents on campus. They are also supporting graduate student Jonathan Butler, who has embarked on a hunger strike with the hope of having Wolfe removed.
This will be a fascinating case to watch because Wolfe issued a statement Sunday that offered no indication that he plans to step down. While the student protests—which include an economic boycott of university services—are big news in Columbia, the involvement of the football team has taken the story nationwide. Missouri is scheduled to face BYU next Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. If the boycott continues, that game might not be played. The boycotting players have the support of their teammates and coaches, as demonstrated by the photo Tigers coach Gary Pinkel tweeted on Sunday.
2. While the Championship Saturday slate remains largely incomplete, two teams booked their tickets to their respective conference title games.
After beating Florida State, Clemson is your ACC Atlantic Division champion. The Tigers must now wait to see who emerges from the Coastal. The odds-on favorite is North Carolina, but Duke, Miami and Pittsburgh remain mathematically alive.
Florida, meanwhile, captured the SEC East with an ugly 9–7 win over Vanderbilt in Gainesville. The Gators haven’t played in the SEC title game since losing to Alabama in 2009. The events of Saturday night made the Crimson Tide the favorite to meet the Gators in Atlanta, but Alabama must first win at Mississippi State and Auburn to clinch the West.
In the Big Ten, Iowa can clinch the West by combining a win over Minnesota with a Wisconsin loss at Maryland. If the Hawkeyes win and the Badgers refuse to lose, Iowa can clinch the West by also beating Purdue on Nov. 21.
Out west, Stanford can clinch the Pac-12 North by beating Oregon on Saturday. The South is another story. Utah, UCLA and USC remain in the hunt with games between the Bruins and Utes and Bruins and Trojans left. Utah has a one-game lead on the two L.A. schools, but USC has a head-to-head win over the Utes.
In the American, Temple can clinch the East Division by winning at USF on Saturday.
3. TCU may have lost more than a game Saturday if the wrist injury that knocked out receiver Josh Doctson keeps Boykin’s favorite target on the shelf through these next few weeks. Doctson spent the second half of TCU’s loss at Oklahoma State icing his left wrist. Hopefully, one of the most exciting players in the country will be able to come back for the stretch run. If he can’t, the Frogs will have to locate another go-to target.
4. Speaking of injured receivers, USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster had a plate and a screw placed in his hand last Monday and then went out Saturday and caught eight passes for 138 yards with a score in a 38–30 win over Arizona. “I knew he was gonna play when he called me right after surgery,” USC quarterback Cody Kessler told the Orange County Register. “Nobody was gonna talk him out of it.”
5. Notre Dame tailback C.J. Prosise will go through concussion protocols this week after sustaining a head and shoulder injury in the Fighting Irish’s 42–30 victory at Pittsburgh on Saturday. “He landed on his shoulder and kind of whiplashed his neck when he got down to the ground and a player landed on him, so he was better today,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters Sunday. “He’ll go through a physical conditioning tomorrow, and if he obviously passes that, then we’ll move to the next stage. But we’re hopeful that if he takes the steps necessary that we’ll have him back out on the practice field this week.”
Notre Dame faces Wake Forest and Boston College in its next two games. The Irish can probably win both without Prosise, but they’ll want him back when they play at Stanford on Nov. 28. Still, Notre Dame’s ability to keep producing rushing yards despite adverse circumstances has been amazing. Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant were supposed to carry the ground game this year. Bryant was suspended for the season and withdrew from school. Folston was lost for the fall after tearing his ACL in the opener against Texas. Prosise, a converted defensive back, took over and has rushed for 975 yards. When Prosise when down Saturday, Josh Adams picked up the slack with 20 carries for 147 yards. Notre Dame’s depth continues to astound.
6. Please keep the Joseph family from Pascagoula, Miss., in your thoughts. Mississippi State freshman defensive lineman Keith Joseph Jr. and his father Keith Sr. were killed Friday in a one-car accident. They were driving to a game at Pascagoula High. The younger Joseph was 18. The elder Joseph was 44.
7. Have you ever wondered how the field goal version of the ending to the Michigan State-Michigan game might look? Wonder no more. Montana beat Idaho State this weekend with such a play.
8. Washington State coach Mike Leach was one of the more outspoken critics of Arizona State’s attempts to steal opponents’ signals. (I was not, because anything you do in front of more than 60,000 people isn’t secret.) Leach had some fun Saturday after his team’s 38–24 win over the Sun Devils. “The first half we stole a bunch of their signals, and those helped us a bunch the second half,” Leach told ESPN.com.
9. Also, you know you’ve hit a low point when you get trolled with Ace of Base. So, welcome to rock bottom, Arizona State.
10. Sports. Also, love.
What’s eating Andy?
WHY ARE YOU AT A NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL GAME WHEN YOU SHOULD BE FINISHING WRITING THE WINDS OF WINTER?
What’s Andy eating?
Atlanta is a brunch town, but I’m a breakfast person. So, when I found myself on the ground at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Friday morning with no particular timetable to get to Birmingham—where I would be staying the night before LSU-Alabama—I knew exactly where to go. I didn’t want a festive take on eggs benedict. I didn’t want salmon-stuffed anything. I wanted breakfast. I drove to The Silver Skillet, which has served a frill-free most important meal of the day since 1956.
I was lucky. Had I come a day earlier, the place would have been closed to accommodate a film crew. On Friday, it was back to business as usual. Within minutes of arriving, I had country ham with red-eye gravy and a chicken biscuit sitting in front of me. The waitress asked if I’d like more biscuits. Of course I wanted more of those perfect, fluffy miracles. I couldn’t dip just my ham in that red-eye gravy.
At some of those fancier places, they’d call red-eye gravy something pretentious, like “country ham jus.” At The Silver Skillet, things are called what they are. There is free parking across the street courtesy of The Moose Lodge. You can listen to the staff tell stories across the bar.
Waitress No. 1: You got a snake in your house?
Waitress No. 2: Yeah, but it was just a little one.
The country ham might be a little on the salty side, but it’s supposed to be. There is always more coffee and always more biscuits. It’s heaven, and if you do it properly, you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.
Of course I ate again on Friday. After going old-school in the morning, I decided to go trendy that night. Former SI colleague Stewart Mandel, who now lives in the Bay Area, thought he’d been transported back to Brooklyn when he walked into Ollie Irene in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook. “Everyone here is dressed like they’re in Mumford and Sons,” Mandel said upon arriving. Hipster taint aside, the place made fantastic food. Mandel loved his Korean barbecue ribs, and my catfish sautéed with lemon butter and Cajun ham was outstanding. Next time, though, we’re ordering the truffle butter burgers that aren’t on the menu. We didn’t learn about them until after we’d ordered, and the ones that arrived at the next table over basically guaranteed a return trip the next time work brings me to Birmingham.
Of course, I’d also go back just for the flourless bourbon chocolate cake. Every bite exploded with a brown liquor-tinged, semisweet joy. It was rich enough to spilt but too delicious to share, and it went down smooth with the shot of vanilla milk that made me too happy to be mad that no one had told me about that burger.