'Texas is back' and more early-season predictions we got totally wrong this year
Before Sunday's 24–21 loss to Kansas, the last time Texas had played in an overtime game was on Sept. 4, when it edged Notre Dame, 50–47, in double overtime. It was the Longhorns' first game of coach Charlie Strong's third season in Austin, and a win over the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish seemed like a signature victory, the most concrete sign yet that Strong finally had things headed the right direction.
Not three months later, he'd better start updating his resume. Losing to the Jayhawks for the first time in 78 years was the last straw for Strong and a Texas team that's now gone 5–6 after being ranked No. 11 in Week 2's AP Poll.
That sharp fall is perhaps the best late-season reminder that sometimes, too often, sports are smarter than we are. So as we wave goodbye to this latest inglorious era in Texas football, let's take a look back at 10 things we—the collective college football we, that is—said before Oct. 1 that now make us look like complete doofuses.
1. Texas is back.
Notre Dame was the No. 10 team in the preseason AP poll. Texas jumped from unranked to No. 11 after beating the Irish. That win was supposed to mean something—until Notre Dame showed its true colors as a bad defense coupled with a just-fine offense. Meanwhile, Texas went on to throttle UTEP, 41–7, in Week 2 before losing to Cal, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. The Longhorns' lone wins since Sept. 10 have been over Iowa State, Texas Tech and Baylor, and their defense has allowed opponents an average of 31.5 points this season. Meanwhile, Notre Dame's resume includes wins over Nevada, Syracuse, Miami and Army. The game that looked like it pitted one of the best teams in college football (and certainly one of the best offenses) against a traditional power back on the rise now seems, well, meaningless.
2. I can't wait for Big 12 expansion!
It's been more than a month since the Big 12 announced it would stay put at 10 teams, but every time I think back on that decision, I still can't help but laugh. We actually wasted months of our lives convincing ourselves that it would make sense for the conference to span the distance between Utah and West Virginia. It seemed like a lock that Houston and maybe one, maybe three more lucky teams would waltz into the Big 12, and the expansion did seem logical in most categories except geography. Even with the television question, this seemed like a done deal in some form, be it two teams or four, in October or this winter—until it wasn't, and the most compelling storyline of 2016 went up in smoke.
3. Houston has the best shot of non-Power 5 team at the playoff.
I, for one, thought there was a great shot Houston would crack the College Football Playoff this winter, and after the Cougars beat Oklahoma in Week 1, I convinced myself it was going to happen. Of course the stakes were high; Tom Herman's team would have had to go undefeated to get a real shot, but Houston wasn't supposed to be tested until last weekend, when it beat Louisville. But by then, it had already racked up two losses, to Navy and SMU, dooming its chances at the playoff or a New Year's Six bowl berth.
There's a silver lining, though: We got an even more inspiring underdog! Sure, Western Michigan is going to go undefeated and miss the playoff, but frankly, it's a lot more fun to see a team come out of absolutely nowhere. The MAC is a step below the American, and P.J. Fleck was anything but a household name last summer. So for all our adulation of Houston, at least we have a new David to cheer for—even if it won't get a chance at a true Goliath this postseason.
4. James Franklin is on the hot seat.
I also wrote this. And thought this. And I was critical of Franklin's answers to a line of questioning about Penn State's resurgence at Big Ten Media Day. (That still holds.) But Penn State has managed to overshadow whatever odd answers Franklin gave and the misguided decision to honor Joe Paterno earlier this year by winning, and winning big. Toppling Ohio State was—and could remain—the biggest win in Franklin's tenure in State College. Even if the Nittany Lions' No. 8 ranking in this week's AP poll is inflated—I happen to think it is—Franklin is certainly secure in his role, and Penn State has turned the corner back to relevance.
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5. So is Clay Helton.
Helton got exactly zero benefit of the doubt early in his first full year as the head man at USC. Getting clobbered 52–6 by Alabama in the season opener was not a great look, and the Trojans went on to start the season 1–3 with losses to Stanford and Utah and their lone September win coming over Utah State. Now, though, USC hasn't lost a game since Oct. 1, going 7–0 down the stretch with an average point differential of +20. I repeat: On this winning streak, USC has won its games by an average of 20 points. It'll be fascinating to see what the Trojans can do should they edge Colorado to get a spot in the conference championship game against Washington (most likely) or Washington State. (For that to happen, Colorado must lose to Utah on Saturday.) Regardless of the Trojans' postseason fate, Helton is most certainly secure for the near future.
6. Speaking of Los Angeles, UCLA and Josh Rosen will revive college football in Southern California.
Josh Rosen's season was one of the most disappointing things about college football in 2016. The outspoken, intelligent quarterback who was projected to be one of the best signal callers in the country this season hasn't played since Oct. 8 after he suffered a shoulder injury. He finished his abbreviated season without a huge improvement over his freshman campaign, with a 59.3% completion rate (60.0% a year ago) and averaging 319.2 passing yards per game (282.2 a year ago). With him, the Bruins were 3–3. Without him, they've gone 1–4, and we'll have to wait another year to see if the former five-star recruit is all he's cracked up to be.
7. Lamar Jackson could be really good, but he's still a question mark.
This isn't an area where the conventional wisdom was wrong, per se, but rather just one in which college football severely underestimated an individual player. I think that warrants mention. Jackson, despite Louisville's two losses, has a firm grip on the Heisman Trophy, and he's been everything Louisville could have wanted and more. High hopes for the sophomore were a result of his late-season play in 2015, but there was plenty of reason to doubt he'd be able to improve upon a somewhat small and inconsistent sample size—until he did, big time.
Where many teams would have worked to protect a guy like Jackson and limit his exposure by curbing his carries, Louisville has managed to use him as a rushing threat and also keep him largely healthy. (He's averaging 149.5 rushing yards and 383.6 passing yards per game and completing 57.1% of his passes.) Even with two less-than-inspiring performances in a row against Wake Forest and Houston, Jackson is still anything but an uncertainty. He's the best offensive player in college football—and we get another year of him.
8. It's Tennessee's year, we swear, finally.
The Volunteers' long-shot hope of making the SEC Championship Game died last weekend when Florida beat LSU, and the team that was ranked No. 9 in the preseason AP poll is now No. 24, sitting on an 8–3 record. Butch Jones took his team a step forward, sure, but Tennessee won't figure into the postseason picture in any kind of major way.
9. Michigan State! Iowa!
I don't think anyone really grasped how the Big Ten would shake out in August. Ohio State and Michigan haven't surprised anyone, but after the conference's top two teams, nothing is as predicted. Michigan State, ranked No. 12 in the preseason, is 3–8 and will miss a bowl berth. Iowa, No. 17 going into Week 1, is also unranked at 7–4. Meanwhile, Wisconsin (the AP's No. 5 team this week), Penn State and No. 17 Nebraska have gone from unranked into the top 25.
10. Les Miles will prove himself this season with this much talent and so much on the line.
We should have known better. We were blinded by our love. Maybe that explains it. Consider that LSU was ranked fifth in the preseason AP poll after it went an uninspiring 9–3 in 2015 and came within milliseconds of firing Miles. That was hardly a solid footing on which to start the season, but alas. We believed in Les, and he let us down. To be fair, though, the Tigers' two losses before Miles was fired look not half bad in retrospect; they lost to Wisconsin and Auburn, both of whom were unranked at the time but will likely finish their seasons in the top 25. Still, two losses in four games were too many for LSU, and the school's decision was understandable—as was our delusion that this year, Miles would finally put the pieces back together at a job that he'd been losing his grip on for several years.