We can't get enough of a good soap opera. We're fascinated by the public meltdowns of celebrities, the tawdry demises of politicians and the antics of the Real Housewives of Every County. As such, the 2013 college football season has been a tabloid maven's delight.
So far, more coaches have been eliminated from their jobs than preseason contenders have been eliminated from the national title race. USC's Lane Kiffin and Connecticut's Paul Pasqualoni didn't make it out of September.
Trojans athletic director Pat Haden's 3 a.m. ouster of Kiffin following USC's 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night was the college football equivalent of Miley Cyrus getting into a fight with Lindsay Lohan while cursing out Kanye West on Twitter. The sport's most widely reviled coach being terminated in the middle of the night? Getting the news from Haden at the airport, no less? In the Los Angeles media market? Bravo's producers must be impressed. The usually reserve something this juicy for the reunion shows.
Things began to go downhill for the fourth-year coach when ... well, when he left Tennessee in 2010 after just one season, torpedoing bridges and inviting national scorn from which he never could escape. Kiffin's self-proclaimed dream job turned nightmarish before he had ever coached a game in L.A., when the NCAA handed down crippling sanctions that still handcuff the Trojans. He said last week that USC was bringing just 56 "recruited scholarship players" to Tempe, several of whom (including star wide receiver Marqise Lee) got hurt during against the Sun Devils.
But scholarship restrictions don't explain why, on fourth-and-1 from his own 41-yard line late in the third quarter on Saturday night, Kiffin had running back Tre Madden not only line up in the Wildcat, but also attempt a pass, which he lobbed into the hands of Sun Devils cornerback Alden Darby. It was just one play in a game full of bad ones for USC, but it was also the type of cartoonish sequence that has perpetuated the national perception of Kiffin as an unqualified boy wonder who lucked his way into prestigious jobs. One might even wonder whether Madden's interception was the exact moment that Haden -- who insisted that he supported Kiffin "with all my heart and soul" right up until he fired him -- decided to pull the plug.
"This has been brewing for a while," Haden said in his press conference on Sunday. "I haven't felt particularly good since the [season-opening] Hawaii game. We haven't been the consistent team we need to be here at USC."
Haden, who produced gave Kiffin a video vote of confidence before the season, said "it could be easily asked, why not last year after a 7-6 season? What do you know now that you didn't know then?" After going 10-2 in 2011, Haden had hoped 2012 was "an aberration." It was not. The 3-2 Trojans seem to have gotten even worse in 2013. The offense was improving but erratic. The defense was dominant until Saturday night, when linebacker Hayes Pullard and safeties Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens, standouts all, suffered injuries and Arizona State wasa able to do everything it wanted in the second half, finishing with 612 total yards.
"I've said all along that [Kiffin] was being graded on a curve," Haden said of dealing with the sanctions. "But, we failed on the curve, too."
Oh, and let's not forget what Haden has planned for the rest of the season. Ed Orgeron (formerly the coach Ole Miss) has been tasked with leading USC on an interim basis, and is supposed to inject the program with "fun and joy." The Trojans still have eight games remaining. Orgeron, with his booming Cajun accent, is like the volatile new housemate that MTV producers throw into The Real World two-thirds of the way through a season. Kiffin closed practice sessions to the media earlier this year; Orgeron has said that he will reopen them. The L.A. sporting press is in for a wild couple of months.
But nationally, the story surrounding the Trojans the rest of the way won't be Orgeron; it will be his successor. Combined with a probable opening at Texas, virtually every successful coach in the country -- Chris Petersen, Kevin Sumlin, David Shaw, Pat Fitzgerald -- is about to become part of the coaching carousel whether they want to or not. Two jobs of this magnitude don't normally come open in the same year.
Which is why soap operas like the one on Sunday morning continue to overshadow actual football.
Sure, there were some great games in September, most notably Alabama's shootout victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 14 and Georgia's back-and-forth win over LSU on Saturday. But the most talked-about topics of the season's first month all concerned coaches: the job status of Longhorns coach Mack Brown, the profane rant of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini and now Kiffin's abrupt ouster at USC. Maybe the focus will change once there's an actual landscape-altering upset -- once a top-10 team finally loses to an opponent outside of the top 10 -- but right now there's far more intrigue in the identity of the Trojans' next coach than in the identity of the next team that Oregon will beat 55-16.
USC has a bye this week, so there's no chance this weekend will provide another Trojans train wreck for fan amusement. But some other team will. Perhaps another coach will even get fired. College football's 2013 reality show is only getting started.
The SEC's offensive culture shift continues
Following Georgia's dizzying 44-41 win over LSU on Saturday, which saw five game-tying or lead-changing touchdowns in the final 16:33, Tigers coach Les Miles was asked if such games had become the new norm in the SEC.
"God, I hope not," he said.
A rare batch of superlative quarterbacks, combined with a significant exodus of defensive talent, has turned this year's SEC into the Big 12 circa 2008, or the Pac-12 circa ... well, every year. Old Man Football suddenly bears a striking resemblance to the old WAC.
Take LSU and Georgia, for example. Last April, the Tigers had eight defensive players drafted, while the Bulldogs had seven. No matter how well both schools recruited, it's hard to replace that much starting experience without taking some steps back. Meanwhile, Tigers and Bulldogs both field a pair of fifth-year quarterbacks in Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray, respectively, who both rank among the top six nationally in pass efficiency. Each is protected by a veteran offensive line and bolstered by elite running backs (Jeremy Hill for LSU; Todd Gurley, who left this week's game with an ankle injury, and Keith Marshall for Georgia), and throws to an array of talented receivers.
Needless to say, neither team could stop the other during Saturday's clash.
Elsewhere, Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M outlasted Arkansas 45-33 -- the Aggies' young defense now ranks 114th nationally. And Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina fell behind early and struggled late in an eventual 28-25 win at UCF.
There is at least one SEC team that keeps winning the old-fashioned way. Top-ranked Alabama's defense got back on track in a 25-0 shutout of normally explosive Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide held the Rebels to 205 total yards. Nick Saban is beginning to figure things out in his secondary after its nightmare performance at Texas A&M in Week 3.
Alabama will face Mettenberger on Nov. 9. And if the Tide gets to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 7, Murray may be waiting. These will not likely be 20-17 games. There's still plenty of elite talent in the SEC, but this year, it's concentrated more heavily on offense.
After passing one Big Ten test, Ohio State set to face another
The electric atmosphere at Ohio Stadium on Saturday night was evident even on television, and amid all those rounds of Seven Nation Army and Hang On Sloopy, fourth-ranked Ohio State held off No. 23 Wisconsin 31-24 for the Buckeyes' 17th consecutive victory.
"There's positives and negatives," coach Urban Meyer said the next morning. "The enthusiasm and energy was incredible. The negative is everyone's exhausted. We've got to make sure it gets right."
The knock on Ohio State all along has been its weak schedule, but this weekend may be its most difficult test of the entire season. After a physical, emotional home win, the Buckeyes must turn around and visit No. 16 Northwestern in the biggest game the Wildcats have hosted in 18 years. It's homecoming on Saturday in Evanston. College GameDay will be on hand. Even if Northwestern (4-0) is only a fringe top-15 team, the Wildcats are going to be pumped -- and rested, as the will be fresh off a bye week.
"I saw this coming," Meyer said of the Buckeyes' schedule. "Two ranked teams back-to-back, one on the road, the one we just got out of was real physical. Then we have a bye week. So there's two seasons, and this is the end of the first season coming up."
In his first game back after missing two weeks with a knee injury, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller showed off the refined passing skills fans heard about all offseason. Facing a Badgers defense set up to stuff the run, the Buckeyes' coaches repeatedly took chances over the top -- the kind they didn't necessarily have the confidence in Miller to take last fall. The junior responded, throwing first-quarter touchdowns of 25 yards to Evan Spencer and 26 yards to Devin Smith. Most notably, on the last play of the first half, Miller hit Philly Brown for a 40-yard score to give Ohio State a 24-14 lead heading into the break.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' defense shut down Wisconsin's powerful rushing attack (104 yards on 27 attempts), though that only caused the Badgers to go to the air with surprising success. Quarterback Joel Stave (20-of-34, 295 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and receiver Jared Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, one touchdown) repeatedly lit up Ohio State's secondary. If that wasn't cause enough for concern, senior safety and captain Christian Bryant also suffered a season-ending ankle injury on the game's second-to-last play. Meyer was visibly crushed in his postgame press conference, having just received the news 10 minutes earlier.
Still, if the Buckeyes win on Saturday, they could be primed for another special season. Ohio State won't face another ranked opponent until its Nov. 30 finale against No. 19 Michigan.
Current BCS forecast
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:
I couldn't hold out until Oct. 19. You win, Clemson. But please, go a little bit easier on Wake Forest next time.
Spreading the field
• A week after falling 37-0 to Maryland, West Virginia (3-2) pulled off arguably the season's biggest upset to date by topping No. 11 Oklahoma State, 30-21. Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett (24-of-50, 309 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions), a transfer from Florida State, played well, but the story of the day was the West Virginia defense, which limited the Cowboys' normally prolific offense to 2.8 yards per rushing attempt, forced three turnovers and held Oklahoma State scoreless for the game's final 26 minutes.
"There has been a bunch of emotions over the past week, embarrassment and disappointment," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward, adding that his team "wanted [this game] pretty bad." The Cowboys, voted preseason Big 12 favorites, are now 0-1 in conference play.
• Meanwhile, the Cowboys' nemesis, Oklahoma (4-0), played impressive defense (three first-half interceptions) and a ran the ball extremely well (212 yards on 42 attempts) in a 35-21 win at Notre Dame (3-2). Sooners quarterback Blake Bell dutifully battled through cramps to throw a game-clinching fourth-quarter touchdown. He looks like an able leader. "No doubt in my mind that we're a national championship-type of team," said running back Brennan Clay. That might be pushing it, though Oklahoma's conference isn't exactly littered with landmines.
• Playing in a monsoon that prompted coach Mark Helfrich to say at halftime, "I think I saw Carl Spackler out there," Oregon (4-0) seized on five Cal turnovers (on the Bears' first six series) to roll 55-16. Meanwhile, Stanford's punishing defense knocked out two quarterbacks and returned two pick-sixes in a 55-17 win over Washington State. Fans might say that the Nov. 7 showdown between the Ducks and the Cardinal can't come soon enough, except that there's this other team in the Pac-12 North ...
• Washington handed off to star running back Bishop Sankey a career-high 40 times for 161 yards and a touchdown in a rainy 31-13 win over Arizona in Seattle. "The weather made it one of those grind-it-out, meat-and-potato games, where both teams had to run the ball, and both defenses knew it," said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian. "It was just really cool." Washington, 4-0 for the first time since 2001, will find out definitively where it stands in the next two weeks when the Huskies visit Stanford and then host Oregon.
• Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is quietly tearing it up in the Northwest. In the Beavers' 44-17 rout of Colorado on Saturday, the junior threw for 414 yards and six touchdowns, with one interception. He now leads the nation with 2,018 yards and 21 touchdown passes (with just two picks). "He better be in the Heisman talk after this game," star receiver Brandin Cooks (nine catches, 168 yards, two touchdowns) said of his quarterback.
• Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston continues to shine, throwing for 330 yards and four touchdowns -- including a 55-yard Hail Mary to Kenny Shaw on the final play of the first half -- at Boston College on Saturday. But the Seminoles (4-0) may have cause for concern about their defense following a tougher-than-expected 48-34 win. Then again, the Florida State D also had four sacks and two interceptions, one of which cornerback P.J. Williams returned 20 yards to the house. It's not smooth sailing for the 'Noles until the Clemson game (Oct. 19), though. Maryland (4-0) visits Tallahassee this week.
• Virginia Tech's defense is really good. Despite playing on a short week, the Hokies (4-1) held run-heavy Georgia Tech to 129 rushing yards in a 17-10 victory last Thursday. Oft-maligned Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas turned in his best performance (19-of-25, 221 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) to date. Led by All-America candidates like linebacker Jack Tyler and cornerback Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech ranks No. 2 nationally in yards allowed per play (3.73).
• Iowa (4-1) also enjoyed a statement performance from its defense in Saturday's 23-7 win over rival Minnesota (4-1). The Gophers entered the matchup averaging 282.2 rushing yards per game, but they only gained 30 yards on 27 attempts against the Hawkeyes, who quietly have moved into the top 15 in total defense against an admittedly soft early schedule. Iowa plays offensively challenged Michigan State next week. Then it has a bye before a three-week gauntlet of games against Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
• Missouri begins SEC play this week at Vanderbilt after a very quiet 4-0 start. Tigers quarterback James Franklin completed 20-of-29 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns, with no picks, in Saturday's 41-19 win over Arkansas State. Sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (season stats: 21 catches, 334 yards, four touchdowns) is starting to show why he was such a ballyhooed recruit coming out of high school. But Mizzou has yet to face an FBS foe with a winning record, so it's anyone's guess how the Tigers will fare on Saturday.
• Fans knew the American Athletic Conference would struggle for respect after bringing in four Conference USA schools, but it's the former Big East teams that are dragging the league's reputation down. On Saturday, Buffalo trounced Connecticut 41-12, Idaho topped Temple 26-24, and Miami routed USF 49-21 in a game that included a two-yard punt. All three Big East holdovers are 0-4, leaving the American and the MAC as the only leagues that still have three winless teams. Poor Louisville.
• The American can at least look forward next year to welcoming East Carolina (3-1), which stunned North Carolina 55-31 in Chapel Hill. Running back Vintavious Cooper, a former juco transfer who rushed for 1,049 yards last season, sprang for a career-high 186 yards against the disappointing Tar Heels. "We felt like we've got a chance to have a pretty good ball team," said fourth-year Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill, whose team's sole loss came against Virginia Tech. "To get this win was big."
• Fresno State (4-0) narrowly avoided a historic collapse early on Sunday in Hawaii, where the Warriors (0-4) cut a 42-3 deficit to 42-37 and had a chance to win on a last-second Hail Mary. The FBS record for the biggest comeback is 35 points.
Smaller story, but I'm sure you're following it
In last week's Overtime, I touted Fresno State as "2013's best hope for a BCS buster." That may have done a disservice to last year's postseason party crasher.
On Saturday, Northern Illinois (4-0) trounced hapless Purdue 55-24 to become the first MAC team to notch two regular-season wins over Big Ten opponents. (The Huskies won 30-27 at Iowa in Week 1.) The score tied for the conference's most lopsided victory over a Big Ten opponent (Toledo beat Minnesota 38-7 in 2001), and NIU entered the Coaches' Poll at No. 23, two spots behind the Bulldogs.
Quarterback Jordan Lynch is still Northern Illinois' centerpiece, but he's not quite the one-man show he was in 2012. Lynch, who finished last season with 4,953 total yards, ranks 14th nationally in total offense (327 yards per game). Against Purdue, he was a solid 18-of-25 for 207 yards and three touchdowns while running for 35 yards and a score. The Huskies' other rushers averaged 5.3 yards per carry. NIU scored on both kickoff and interception returns in the third quarter and forced five turnovers.
"Any time we have a chance to play a BCS team, a Big Ten team, we have a chip on our shoulder," Lynch said afterward.
There will be understandable skepticism about NIU after last year, when the Huskies hardly deserved a BCS berth after losing to 4-8 Iowa, notching their lone BCS-conference win over 1-11 Kansas and sneaking into the Orange Bowl upon moving into the BCS top 16 on the season's final Sunday. Their 31-10 loss to Florida State in Miami seemingly validated all of the criticism.
Purdue may well end up being this year's Kansas, but Saturday's score was 55-24 -- not 30-23 -- and the Iowa team NIU beat in Week 1 is 4-1. Looking at the Huskies' conference slate, which begins Saturday at Kent State, there aren't many obvious roadblocks. The only team in their division with a non-losing record is 4-1 Ball State, whom the Huskies face on Nov. 13. The only chance for NIU to play the MAC's other most promising team, 4-1 Bowling Green, would be in the league title game (Dec. 6).
"After 24 hours, we're 0-0," coach Rod Carey said after Saturday's game. "We have a conference to go get."
Frank Beamer: Fleet on his feet
Virginia Tech's 66-year-old coach gets down following the Hokies' Thursday night win over Georgia Tech.
Bret Bielema: Not so much
Arkansas' coach falls down during the team's Hog Walk into the stadium before facing Texas A&M.
Mini-previews for three of Week 6's big games:
• Ohio State at Northwestern, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The last (and only) time GameDay visited Evanston was for a Nov. 11, 1995 matchup with Iowa, when a blizzard forced the show inside Welsh-Ryan Arena. The weather should be more cooperative this time around, but Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller might be less forgiving.
• Washington at Stanford, Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET): Prepare for a late night, East Coasters. This one is worth staying up for. Linebackers Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and the Cardinal will look to put the clamps on Washington's Keith Price and Bishop Sankey. Meanwhile, the Huskies' third-ranked defense will test itself against Stanford's dominant offensive line.
• Notre Dame vs. Arizona State, Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET): Over the past three weeks, the Sun Devils have played games that left one coach (Wisconsin's Gary Andersen) livid and another one (USC's Lane Kiffin) fired. With the Fighting Irish already saddled with two losses, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly will surely be exasperated if his team falls at Jerry World.