1:05 AM ET
David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
This year has been so filled with chaos, it’s hard to notice each new twist or turn. Our collective lack of surprise is actually the one thing that has kept us bonded throughout a year in which our connections have been stretched and tested like no other time in recent memory. Even amid the chaos, we could all share in the same joke: “2020, am I right?”
Murder hornets? Carole Baskin? That week when everything was cake? Hey, it’s 2020!
Then comes college football’s Week 12, which, in a normal season, would represent our penultimate week of games before rivalry weekend, a small moment to catch our breath before the final playoff push. But this isn’t a normal season — hey, Utah just played its first game! — and our College Football Playoff countdown is looking every bit as chaotic and unexpected as, well, everything else in 2020.
But Saturday was necessary because when the most unlikely of outcomes seems entirely reasonable, we needed a day that determined just how crazy this playoff push will get. In a world in which we must legitimately consider the possibility that Coastal Carolina is a top-10 team and Northwestern could win a playoff game on the strength of three safeties and a blocked punt, we needed a Separation Saturday. And that’s what we got.
Northwestern is a playoff contender. An offense that hasn’t topped 317 yards since its opener is now 5-0 after beating No. 10 Wisconsin 17-7. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is winning with an old-school Big Ten model — a ridiculous defense and an offense that somehow lulls everyone to sleep just long enough to score a couple touchdowns. How wild is this? Entering Saturday, teams with fewer than 300 yards of offense were 24-116. Northwestern moved to 3-0 in such games with the win against Wisconsin. Who needs offense in 2020?
Cincinnati is a playoff contender, too. The Bearcats are saddled with the “they’re not in the Power 5” excuse, but that seems particularly foolish this season. Cincinnati just went to the Bounce House and won. Its defense proved deserving of all the hype, holding UCF to fewer than 400 yards of offense for the first time since the 2019 Fiesta Bowl against LSU. And what’s the case that the American Athletic Conference is any worse, top to bottom, than the Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12 this season? If Cincinnati runs the table, its path to the playoff — at SMU, Memphis, at UCF, at Tulsa — will have been as tough as, say, Notre Dame’s or Ohio State’s. It’s 2020, so of course this is the year a team outside the Power 5 deserves a playoff bid.
Heck, Cincinnati isn’t alone in that quest. How about BYU? The Cougars had an easy win over North Alabama, their seventh victory by at least 30 points this season. In the playoff era, only five other teams have done that in the regular season, and three made the playoff.
Or how about Coastal Carolina? The Chanticleers passed another big test, beating Appalachian State behind three touchdowns from freshman quarterback Grayson McCall. It’s 2020, so of course Coastal Carolina is undefeated with a freshman QB. Who couldn’t have seen that coming?
Clemson is a playoff contender, and the Tigers planned to add to their credentials with a win at Florida State on Saturday. Only, that didn’t happen. Why? Depends whom you ask. The Tigers had a player test positive for COVID-19 after traveling to Tallahassee, Florida, which convinced Florida State the game ought not be played. The end result was two fan bases bickering over who was at fault because, in 2020, no storyline is clear-cut.
How about Indiana? The Hoosiers saw their playoff hopes disappear Saturday, but in the aftermath of a 42-35 loss to Ohio State, it sure felt like Indiana was a winner. Justin Fields threw as many interceptions in one game as he had thrown in his career at Ohio State. The Hoosiers trailed 35-7 at the start of the third quarter and 42-21 to start the fourth, and yet they still had a chance to win on their final drive. Michael Penix Jr. threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns, or offensive production Jim Harbaugh would call “a nice decade in Columbus.”
Speaking of Harbaugh, he delivered Saturday’s most quintessentially 2020 moment. After a day of dazzling highlights, a bleary-eyed nation turned its attention to Piscataway, New Jersey, for an absolute train wreck of a game between two 1-3 Big Ten teams. Just more than a year ago, back in more comprehensible times, Michigan beat Rutgers 52-0. On Saturday, things went a little differently, as the Wolverines fell behind early, benched their QB, blew an eight-point lead with less than a minute to play and missed a kick in OT before finally prevailing 48-42 in triple overtime.
Justin Fields tallies 300 passing yards and three total touchdowns, while Michael Penix Jr. tops him with 491 yards and five scores, but Ohio State outlasts Indiana.
Where will all of this lead us? The College Football Playoff committee will release its first rankings this week, and we can be comforted by some sense of normalcy if it includes some combination of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
But normalcy isn’t our comfort zone this year. The old reality feels like ancient history, and whether we’re living in some strange computer simulation or the universe’s version of a cosmic practical joke, it’s actually the unlikely twists that have become out common ground.
So, here’s to 2020 staying weird — at least on the college football field — and let’s have our last few steps toward the playoff take us in a few more strange and unexpected directions.
This week, Twitter announced a new feature called “Fleets,” which are intended to be meandering thoughts that disappear quickly, which, yes, sounds a lot like a tweet. But in honor of this new and completely unnecessary feature, we’ll offer a few “Fleets” of our own from Saturday’s college football action …
Spencer Rattler‘s Heisman Trophy case took a big hit early when Oklahoma dropped two of its first three games, but the Sooners QB has rebounded quite nicely. In fact, after Rattler accounted for five touchdowns in his first Bedlam start, a 41-13 win over Oklahoma State, he’s now completing 68% of his throws, averaging 10 yards per pass, with 26 total touchdowns and seven turnovers. Compare that to Jalen Hurts‘ final eight games of last season: 68% completions, 10.3 yards per pass, 27 TDs and eight turnovers. Hurts finished second in the Heisman race.
Has Georgia finally found its quarterback? The win against Mississippi State wasn’t exactly one to feel good about for the ground game or the defense, but JT Daniels saved the day with 401 passing yards and four touchdowns — the first Bulldogs QB to post a 400-4 game since Aaron Murray in the 2012 Capital One Bowl against Nebraska.
In his debut for the Georgia Bulldogs, JT Daniels goes off for four touchdowns and 401 yards in a 31-24 win vs. Mississippi State.
Virginia Tech lost its third straight game Saturday, and it was ugly. Pitt won 47-14 despite being down 16 players due to COVID-19, racking up 556 yards in the process — its most since 2018 (also against Virginia Tech). Justin Fuente’s seat is getting awfully hot, and with Clemson coming up next weekend, life isn’t going to get any easier. The Virginia game could be make-or-break for the Virginia Tech coach.
The Heisman is getting interesting, but don’t forget the Doak Walker Award, for which UNC’s Javonte Williams, Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams and Clemson’s Travis Etienne look like strong candidates. But Week 12 saw Iowa State’s Breece Hall (135 yards, 2 TDs), Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim (102 yards, 3 TDs) and Alabama’s Najee Harris (110 total yards, 2 TDs) all make big statements.
Liberty came oh-so-close to finishing 3-0 against the ACC this season, with a blocked field goal with 1:18 to play against NC State on Saturday proving the difference. It’s a shame, too. Based on ACC rules, a 3-0 nonconference campaign against the ACC would have earned the Flames the same agreement Notre Dame gets, with access to five ACC games a year. Instead, they’ll settle for a consolation package that includes a box of Bojangles chicken, and Malik Willis can wear the Demon Deacon’s top hat for a week.
LSU’s comeback win against Arkansas prevented a particularly embarrassing twist: A year ago, the Bayou Bengals were favored by 39.5 points over Arkansas (and won by 36). On Saturday, they needed a late TD and a blocked 44-yard field goal try to win.
East Carolina entered Saturday allowing 40 points per game, among the worst in college football. Temple scored a grand total of three. The Owls are now 1-6 and have lost their past three by an average of 28.
This weekend didn’t so much shake up the Heisman race as inject a small dose of reality for some of the top contenders.
His streak of six straight games to open the season with at least four TD passes came to an end against Vanderbilt, but Trask still tossed three scores and finished with 383 yards through the air. He’s the first Power 5 QB since Oregon State’s Sean Mannion in 2013 to throw at least three TDs in each of his first seven games.
Kyle Trask throws for 383 yards and three touchdowns as Florida defeats Vanderbilt 38-17.
2. Alabama QB Mac Jones
The Crimson Tide’s destruction of Kentucky on Saturday was more about the supporting cast than it was the QB. While Najee Harris had more than 100 yards and two TDs and DeVonta Smith set an SEC record with his 32nd career receiving TD, Jones was relatively pedestrian with 230 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that will be remembered for keeping Alabama from scoring 70.
3. BYU QB Zach Wilson
Sure, Wilson wasn’t going to be challenged against North Alabama, but still, he did what he had to do to pad the résumé: 212 yards and four TDs.
4. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Lawrence has tumbled down our rankings because he simply can’t get on the field. Clemson’s game against Florida State was nixed at the last minute Saturday, and it has now been a month since we’ve seen him play. No matter. If Lawrence returns with big games down the stretch and stars in a rematch win over Notre Dame, his odds to win the Heisman remain strong.
5. North Carolina RB Javonte Williams
What, no Justin Fields? Three picks against Indiana diminished his case, and at some point, we need to reward the guys who have actually been playing. Perhaps no one has seen his numbers float beneath the radar quite like Williams has, who entered Saturday leading the nation with 18 touchdowns.
Checking in with the Class of 2018
Saturday’s showdown between Oregon and UCLA wasn’t just a homecoming for Chip Kelly, but also a matchup of two of 2018’s biggest coaching hires.
Mario Cristobal and the Ducks hung on for a 38-35 win, but Kelly won over a few doubters with a strong showing despite being without his starting quarterback. If we’re ranking those 2018 hires, Cristobal is clearly near the top of the list, and Kelly — well, the jury is still out.
Oregon’s defense takes advantage of four UCLA turnovers and quarterback Tyler Shough throws three touchdown passes in their narrow 38-35 win over the Bruins.
Saturday was also a good reminder of just how strange that class of coaches turned out to be.
Of the 21 coaches hired in 2018, just eight have a winning record, including Cristobal and Florida’s Dan Mullen, who also won Saturday. Four have already been fired, and two more — Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin and Nebraska’s Scott Frost — took another step toward the exit Saturday with losses.
A few look to be on the verge of something much better. Jonathan Smith led Oregon State to a 31-27 win over Cal. Kent State is red hot with Sean Lewis at the helm, and while Louisiana’s Billy Napier announced a positive COVID-19 test Saturday, he remains one of the hottest names to fill a big vacancy this offseason.
Josh Heupel’s UCF lost for the third time this season, which certainly won’t put him on the hot seat, but the Knights are a long way from their most recent signature win. Jeremy Pruitt was riding high just a month ago, but Tennessee dropped its fifth straight game in ugly fashion at Auburn. And then there’s Kelly, whose 8-19 mark at UCLA puts the Bruins ahead of just UTEP, Rice and South Alabama among teams still hanging on to their 2018 hire.
Under-the-radar game of the week
With his team at 1-9, Jake Spavital probably isn’t winning any coach of the year votes, but even before Saturday, it was clear that Texas State had made some big strides this season. It just couldn’t get over the hump. The Bobcats had six losses by 10 points or less, including a two-point heartbreak a week ago against Georgia Southern. It might have been another repeat performance Saturday against Arkansas State, but Calvin Hill‘s 6-yard TD run with 34 seconds left secured a 47-45 win. Brady McBride threw for 443 yards and five touchdowns in the victory. It was the Bobcats’ seventh game decided by 10 points or less this season — most in the FBS.
Calvin Hill takes the handoff and finds a hole to give Texas State the lead with less than a minute remaining.
Under-the-radar play of the week
After Army flubbed a chance to run down the clock in the final two minutes of the game, Georgia Southern found itself in field-goal range, down 1 with no timeouts and 22 seconds to go. Hoping for a few extra yards to make life easier for its kicker, the Eagles decided to run a play — and run on that play. QB Justin Tomlin was stuffed, Army’s defenders relaxed on top of the pile for a few extra seconds, and the clock ticked to zero before Georgia Southern could get another play off. A replay review seemed to indicate 1 second was on the clock when Tomlin spiked the ball, but officials disagreed, and the Black Knights hung on for a 28-27 win.
While in range to kick a go-ahead field goal, Georgia Southern QB Justin Tomlin is sacked, and his ensuing spike is too late as the clock strikes zero.
Best bets and bad beats
Nebraska has given us so much in 2020. First, the Huskers threatened to bolt the Big Ten, which surely convinced the league to cave and return to action in October. Then Nebraska complained about being assigned an unfairly arduous schedule that included teams such as (checks notes) Illinois. Then, after the Cornhuskers completely understandably lost to Illinois 41-23, the Illini’s social media team foolishly tried to taunt the Huskers on Twitter. That went over poorly, and the tweet was deleted, so we’re here to offer a proper and completely serious bit of gratitude to those unsung heroes of 2020: Nebraska’s meaningless TD with 2:12 to play in the game pushed the score over the total of 69, giving backers of the over a solid payday. So thank you, Nebraska. You’re the gift that keeps giving (to everyone except Nebraska fans).
It is hard to cover a 51-point spread, and BYU didn’t seem likely to do it when it led North Alabama 56-14 with less than four minutes to play. But as they say, good teams win, and great teams cover. Make no mistake, BYU is a great team. The Cougars booted a field goal with 3:36 to go to push their lead to 45, recovered a fumble two plays later, then scored on a 26-yard run on the next play. Final score: 66-14, covering the massive spread by a point.
Cincinnati won a crucial game to stay in the playoff hunt, but it failed to finish the job and cover a four-point spread. Down 11, UCF converted a fourth-and-11 on a 12-play scoring drive, then finished with a two-point conversion to pull within three. Still, the Bearcats were in position to cover, setting up with a first-and-goal at the UCF 5 with 1:34 to play. The next play got down to the 1, but Cincinnati went nowhere on three straight plays and won by just three.
While the line closed at 3, it had been as high as 5.5 throughout the week, meaning the majority of Coastal Carolina backers were still ready to pull their hair out of their Chanticleer Chandelier mullets as the game drew to a close with the Chanticleers up just four — all in a game in which Coastal failed to convert three 2-point tries and a PAT. But all that bad luck turned around with 1:20 to play when Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas was intercepted by D’Jordan Strong, who returned it 38 yards for the score, ensuring even Chanticleers fans who got in on the action a little too early got to celebrate.