Punt, Pass & Pork: In a season of parity, it all comes down to consistency
Arizona State coach Todd Graham stood before his team in a locker room at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night and spoke the truth. "You guys know we haven't played very good," Graham said. "Haven't coached very good. Haven't played very good. But that's life, isn't it?"
It is indeed. When dealing with large groups of 18- to 22-year-olds, the most consistent factor usually is inconsistency. And that's how Graham could stand before a team that played poorly against Texas A&M and Cal Poly, that got pounded by USC at home a week earlier, and celebrate a road win against a UCLA squad that could still yet prove itself the best team in the Pac-12. That's how Alabama can lose to Ole Miss at home and then destroy Georgia in Athens. It's how Ole Miss can beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa and then get clobbered by a Florida team that was supposed to be an also-ran in the SEC's weaker division. It's how Ohio State can return most of the players from a national title team and need a late defensive stand to escape Indiana. It's how most of the fans can leave Spartan Stadium and miss Michigan State holding on for dear life against Purdue.
We usually don't reach the "everyone stinks" portion of the season until November. That's when people can shoot down the resume of any title contender because "they haven't played anybody" or "look at that loss." This year, "everyone stinks" came early. Matt Hinton of Grantland tweeted Saturday that he would leave the No. 1 slot on his top 10 symbolically vacant, and that isn't a bad idea.
Does everyone stink? Of course not. There are some excellent teams, but thus far we haven't seen the usual two or three teams that dominate almost every game based on sheer physical superiority. There is more parity in the Power Five leagues thanks to the dramatic year-over-year improvement of teams such as Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Utah. The gap between the superpowers and the next group has closed, and that means those powers are going to take some losses. The teams that survive and make the playoff will be the ones whose coaches can convince their 18- to 22-year-olds to ignore their mental and biological prerogatives and play consistently for the next two months.
That's a Herculean task. Think back to when you were 19. Could you deliver a consistently excellent performance on a daily basis in your classes or at your name tag/hair net job? I certainly couldn't. I was worried about girls or the aforementioned classes/job or the random dude who puked in the washing machine at our apartment during our last party.* Now imagine trying to herd 100 such people in a common direction.
*This caused considerable consternation when it happened my sophomore year of college. But after a few minutes, I realized our uninvited guest had actually chosen the second-best place in the apartment for a reversal of fortune. Just toss in some detergent and turn on the washer. Voila.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
That, more than anything, has been the most amazing thing about Alabama's run of success since 2008. We praise Nick Saban for schematic brilliance, but perhaps his finest work has been cajoling his team into playing consistently for most of that seven-year period. Obviously, there have been slipups, but Saban has minimized those more than any other coach.
Saban sensed another of those slipups coming Saturday. His team had come out too hot against Ole Miss and made several crippling mistakes early. So when Alabama and Georgia players had to be separated after jawing on the sideline before the game, Saban tried his best to manage the situation. He said he used the word "Aight" several times, so his players most assuredly knew he was serious. "We started jumping around out there in pregame. I got really pissed," Saban told reporters after Saturday's 38–10 walloping of the Bulldogs. "I said, 'Aight, we're going to go through this again? Aight, we're going to be emotional and not be able to execute and do what we're supposed to do? That's not who we are. So we're focusing on playing football and doing our job.' And they settled down and did a good job."
Good is an understatement. We may have seen the best possible version of the Crimson Tide on Saturday. If Saban can make his players focus that clearly for the rest of the season, Alabama will win the rest of its games and make the playoff. If not, prepare for a deluge of "dynasty is over" thinkpieces that may or may not be premature. Getting that kind of consistency won't be easy because the baseline version of the Tide is probably somewhere between the team that lost to Ole Miss and the one that crushed Georgia.
Meanwhile, one of Saban's former Alabama coordinators will try to coax some consistency out of a group that entered unfamiliar territory Saturday. "We'll see how we handle success now," Florida coach Jim McElwain said. The Gators played Saturday night like a team capable of winning the SEC and contending for a playoff spot. Asked how it felt to finally play alongside an offense that seemed as good at scoring points as Florida's defense has been at preventing them, Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis said this: "It makes you feel invincible."
Florida looked invincible Saturday, but it will be up to McElwain to make the Gators understand that they are the same group that was down to its final play against Tennessee and squeaked out a five-point win against a Kentucky team that went to overtime Saturday against Eastern Kentucky.
Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, will have to show his Michigan players that it won't always be as easy as it was in shutout wins against BYU and Maryland. On Saturday, the Wolverines get the same Northwestern team that beat Stanford in the season opener and then rolled off four more wins.
In the Pac-12, undefeated Cal will go to Salt Lake City. Can Utah duplicate its performance at Oregon, or was that the best possible version of the Utes? Georgia will head to Tennessee, where the Bulldogs will try to prove that the group that lost to Alabama was the worst possible version of a team that will wear silver britches this season.
Everyone doesn't stink, but everyone is much closer together than usual. And because the age group we follow in college football is given to inconsistency, the results could swing wildly because of that narrow talent gap. We could be in for some 2007-style theatrics down the stretch, and while that's bad for those who professionally predict games, it's going to be thrilling for those of us who watch them.
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Utah (4–0)
Thank goodness for bye weeks. Otherwise this list might have been completely shaken up.
2. Baylor (4–0)
The Bears finally played somebody. That somebody (Texas Tech) took TCU to the wire on Sept. 26, and Baylor hung 63 points on the Red Raiders the following week. This doesn't mean the Bears are a lock to win the Big 12 or make the playoff, but it does mean their gaudy numbers in the first three games weren't necessarily the result of facing inferior competition.
3. Clemson (4–0)
The Tigers held on at home against what might have been the best team on their schedule. Now they must stop celebrating and prepare for a Georgia Tech team that beat them last year. Of course, the Yellow Jackets weren't riding a three-game losing streak back then.
4. Alabama (4–1)
The first team with a loss enters the projected playoff. Get used to it. The way things are going, this year could end with a two-loss team or two in the playoff. The Crimson Tide crushed Georgia on Saturday. Meanwhile, Ole Miss got hammered at Florida, and the idea of the Rebels taking a second SEC loss seems more plausible than not. Still, Alabama has to keep winning. That won't be easy, either. The Tide face an Arkansas team that pushed them last year and then battle an undefeated Texas A&M squad that will be coming off an open date. I realize there are still some undefeated power conference teams that could go here, but Alabama's sheer dominance against a good team on the road suggests the Tide have another gear that some of these other teams still haven't shown. Alabama's loss to Ole Miss suggests the Tide won't always use that gear, but if they can from this point forward, they'll be just fine.
A random ranking
I spent a little of Sunday trying to explain to folks on Twitter that preseason rankings will never go away because those same people who complain about preseason rankings love to click on preseason rankings. Since we were discussing rankings, I asked the folks to suggest topics for this week's random ranking. I've decided to combine a suggestion from Matt Sayler ( best airports) with a suggestion from @LAMeetsDC (first world problems). So here are the top five airports.
There's a branch of Hoover's Cooking serving jerk chicken to send you on your way, and when you arrive you walk straight out of the terminal and across the street to the rental car lots.
2. Gulfport, Miss.
The rates are usually great, and it's an easy drive to New Orleans, Baton Rouge or Mobile. Plus, before you depart, you can sip a Southern Pecan beer made by the Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in nearby Kiln.
3. Los Angeles (LAX)
Only because there's a Lemonade in the Delta terminal. I love Lemonade, especially the miso short rib braise and the brussels sprouts. This is the only place I'll eat after I get off the plane and before I enter the city.
4. Jacksonville, Fla.
Security is usually shockingly efficient even if you don't have TSA Precheck, and you can get to a surprising quantity of places for a city that size.
5. Chicago (O'Hare)
There's nothing remotely convenient about O'Hare. But it has three locations of Tortas Frontera. Get the Cubana or the Choriqueso.
Big Ugly of the Week
We head back to the defense to honor Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, who dominated in the Tigers' 24–22 win against Notre Dame. Lawson had 3.5 tackles for loss, and he continues to live in the opponent's backfield. The stats don't effectively measure his performance, either. For example, they don't include the 10 yards Notre Dame lost when offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley was called for holding when he and left guard Quenton Nelson had to tackle Lawson to keep him off Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Holding probably has been the best strategy for blocking Lawson this season. His rise has made the departures of Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett much easier for Clemson to absorb, and it has allowed coordinator Brent Venables to reliably expect pressure when Lawson is in the game. It also probably helped Clemson on Notre Dame's final two-point conversion try. It was a safe assumption the Irish would run the play away from Lawson, so the Tigers were probably a little more prepared for that play to go to the right side. And while Lawson is the Big Ugly of the Week, keep reading to the First-and-10 section, where we'll look at two excellent individual efforts on that play.
1. This spring, I asked Urban Meyer how he planned to keep this season from feeling like the 2009 season at Florida. The parallels were pretty strong, but the major difference seemed to be a changed approach by Meyer to handling the departure of assistants and a better chemistry among the Buckeyes than Meyer's Gators had in 2009.
Despite that, these Buckeyes have looked an awful lot like those Gators. They're getting the best shot from every team they play, and they don't look nearly as physically superior as they are to their opponents. Saturday's 34–27 escape from Indiana featured three turnovers, and Meyer left very concerned. "We're turning the ball over at an alarming rate," Meyer told reporters. "That's obviously a difference in the game. And at some point, that's going to bite you. We have to fix that."
The Buckeyes look tight. When they were ripping through the postseason last season, they were the loosest team on the field. The pressure to win may be affecting them this year, but it doesn't have to. Four teams aren't going undefeated. Ohio State can lose a game and probably still make the playoff. (After all, it did last year.) The Buckeyes don't need to play as if they'll be utter failures if they don't win every game. Of course, if they do loosen up, there's a good chance they won't lose a game—at least not during the regular season.
2. The Big 12 has a problem, and the league is going to look terrible if it doesn't come down hard on the officiating crew from Saturday's Kansas State-Oklahoma State game. Officials gave the Cowboys a phantom first down Saturday on a second-quarter drive that resulted in a touchdown. Oklahoma State wound up winning 36–34.
Here's what happened. The Cowboys had first-and-10 on the Kansas State 45-yard line with just under three minutes remaining in the first half. That means the line to gain was the Kansas State 35-yard line. They were flagged for holding on the first play, making it first-and-20 from the Oklahoma State 45-yard line. The Wildcats then sacked Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph for a loss of seven. That made it second-and-27 from the Oklahoma State 38-yard line. The Cowboys gained four yards on that play, making it third-and-23 from the Oklahoma State 42. Oklahoma State then gains 20 yards on the next play, landing on the Kansas State 38.
Remember, the line to gain was the Kansas State 35. It doesn't help that the Fox Sports 1 announcing crew also missed the fact that Oklahoma State came up short, but the officials aren't listening to the broadcast anyway. Nick Bromberg over at the Dr. Saturday blog at Yahoo! might have found the reason why. Bromberg took a screenshot from the broadcast that shows someone on the chain gang had moved the flat first-down marker on that side of the field (opposite the sticks) to the Kansas State 40-yard line. Still, that doesn't excuse the officials for not noticing the chain gang's mistake and calling the play correctly.
They should remember the original line to gain because that's their job. Nothing happened that would have changed the line to gain. The crew simply blew it. It wasn't quite Colorado getting a fifth down against Missouri in 1990, but on the scale of officiating incompetence, it's pretty close.
The Big 12 needs to suspend this crew. It needs to send a message that such incompetence will not be tolerated. This was not some bang-bang judgment call. This was an entire crew losing its collective mind.
3. Shaq Lawson wasn't the only Clemson defender playing out of his mind Saturday. Two of Lawson's teammates were incredible on Notre Dame's two-point conversion attempt at the end of the game.
Watch the clip below and pay attention to defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (No. 94) and linebacker Ben Boulware (No. 10). Watkins gets double-teamed and still manages to throw a blocker into Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer. Boulware, meanwhile, blows up a lead block and pushes all the action back toward Kizer. If you've ever heard a coach talk about "fitting a gap" and didn't know what the phrase meant, that's what it means. Boulware's job is control the gap the fullback is trying to clear out with the lead block. Boulware does not chase Kizer. He blows up the block because that's the gap he must control. That is his job, and he does it perfectly. Boulware and Watkins's effort allowed the Tigers to win in regulation.
4. Bo Pelini got fired at Nebraska after last season because he usually only won the games he was supposed to win and rarely won any of the games he wasn't supposed to win. That move was always interesting because there was always a possibility that the next coach might begin losing games he wasn't supposed to lose.
Enter Mike Riley. The last-play losses to BYU and Miami were somewhat forgivable, but Saturday's last-play, 14–13 loss to Illinois? The Cornhuskers should not be in a one-score game with the Fighting Illini late in the fourth quarter. They should be cruising to victory. Pelini's team, for example, beat Illinois by 31 last year and by 20 the year before. Obviously, teams change from year to year, but the reason for changing coaches wasn't to change the result against Illinois. It was to change the results against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Maybe this is simply a season of adjustment to new coaches and new schemes. Or maybe, given the circumstances of the losses, it's simply bad luck. But this is not what the Cornhuskers had in mind when they made a coaching change.
5. While they wait for the broken index finger of quarterback Vernon Adams to heal, Oregon coaches seem to have settled on a two-quarterback rotation. The Ducks played Jeff Lockie and walk-on Taylor Alie in a 41–24 win at Colorado on Saturday.
Helfrich and both QBs said a rotation between Lockie/Alie had been settled on pregame. UO stuck with it even when one guy got points.— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) October 4, 2015
Lockie completed 8 of 11 passes for 54 yards with an interception. Alie completed 4 of 9 passes for 83 yards with a touchdown. The most efficient thrower for Oregon was receiver Bralon Addison, who threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Charles Nelson on a trick play in the second quarter. The Ducks did most of their damage on the ground. Royce Freeman ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns, while Taj Griffin gained 110 yards on just 11 carries.
6. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher confirmed Saturday that a hamstring injury knocked tailback Dalvin Cook out of the Seminoles' 24–16 win at Wake Forest, but Fisher gave no indication whether Cook would be ready to play against Miami.
Cook is by far the best part of the Seminoles' offense. He showed that again Saturday when he took his first carry 94 yards for a touchdown. Without him, it would be up to Everett Golson and the receivers to carry the scoring load. Florida State played Saturday without backup tailback Mario Pender, who is still recovering from a collapsed lung. Jonathan Vickers played most of the remaining snaps at tailback against the Demon Deacons. If Cook can't go against the Hurricanes, Vickers and freshman Jacques Patrick could be relied upon to provide the bulk of Florida State's rushing yards.
7. Maybe it's best if everyone avoids tweeting during lopsided Texas losses. The account belonging to Longhorns defensive back Kris Boyd retweeted a tweet from a Texas A&M fan suggesting that Boyd and linebacker Malik Jefferson should transfer. That retweet came during halftime of the Longhorns' 50–7 loss at TCU, when Texas was down 37–0. Boyd, who set his Twitter account to private Saturday night, issued an apology Sunday through the Texas sports information department.
"As I've had time to reflect on my actions, and after personally apologizing to my coaches and teammates, I would also like to extend my sincerest apology to all of the Longhorn fans and family and everyone at UT!" Boyd said, according to the Texas release. "In NO way did I intend to be disrespectful or disloyal. I deeply regret my actions and want to reassure everyone that I am 100% committed to this team and program. I take pride and honor in being a student-athlete at The University of Texas. I promise everyone that I will learn and grow from this."
Meanwhile the person running the official Texas Rangers Twitter account Saturday got fired after sending a tweet that said "Fire Charlie.# bye" during a game against the Angels. This, by the way, is the reason I'll never be allowed to run the official SI Twitter account. We don't need 1.29 million people wondering why SI keeps tweeting out photos of pulled pork.
8. Northwestern keeps winning and keeps dancing.
9. Louisville's James Quick might need to change his name to James Catch.
10. The Orlando, Fla., bar that planned to give away free beer during UCF games until the Knights won a game had to get creative Saturday. As UCF was falling to Tulane, The Basement ran out of the beer it was giving away. So what did the proprietors do? They switched to the hard stuff.
What's eating Andy?
No, I will not criticize Notre Dame's Brian Kelly for going for two while down 12 on Saturday against Clemson. That would make me a hypocrite. How could I criticize Kelly for following the two-point chart when I criticized Tennessee's Butch Jones last week for not following it? The two-point chart is like Blackjack strategy. When you have 16 and the dealer is showing five, you stand. That doesn't mean you're going to win the hand, but it means you've given yourself a better statistical chance of doing so. Sometimes the cards don't work out in your favor. Sometimes your team doesn't succeed on the conversion attempt. That doesn't mean Kelly made the incorrect call.
What's Andy eating?
The photo that will run alongside this review is hideous. I tried my best to capture the inner beauty of a footlong Atomic Meatball sub from Moochie's in Salt Lake City, but the camera has not been invented that can properly convey the deliciousness of a sandwich that, once unwrapped from the tight foil surrounding it, looks a little like an ax wound.
This is not an insult. Far from it. Some of the tastiest foods are downright ugly. They are not served ready for a Cook's Illustrated photo shoot. That cinnamon roll burger thing I ate in Lincoln in August? Unattractive. That deep-fried double bacon cheeseburger I ate in Potterville, Mich., last month? Aesthetically unsound. What else did those burgers have in common with this sandwich? They tasted amazing.
The footlong option at Moochie's is huge. It was almost too big for me, and regular readers who understand the sheer volume I'm capable of consuming know I do not make that statement lightly. The bread is wider than you'll find at your average sub shop, and it is crammed full of housemade meatballs, marinara sauce, jalapeno sauce and feta cheese. The tangy marinara blends perfectly with the savory meatballs. Meanwhile, the jalapeno sauce gives the marinara a fra diavolo feel, but the feta cools everything back down before the brushfire in the mouth gets out of control.
When you choose to order something called an Atomic Meatball sub, you are volunteering for what happens after you finish said sub. A price must be paid for each glorious bite, but the toll at Moochie's isn't so high. Quality ingredients help. Also, the ensuing burps taste just like the sandwich. And since that ugly sandwich tastes wonderful, you get to win again and again for the rest of the night.