Punt, Pass & Pork: Historic weekend of upsets rocks College Football Playoff picture; more analysis after Week 6.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Chip Brooker swears he never took a selfie before Saturday. As Ole Miss students spilled onto the field in celebration of the Rebels’ 23-17 victory over Alabama, Brooker, an attorney from Dallas, wanted photographic proof he was at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for one of the most important wins in Ole Miss history.
“The funny thing is that I’m an Aggie,” Brooker wrote in an email. “I’ve got a group of friends from Dallas who for the past eight to 10 years have picked a random college game to go to. We’ve seen some great games, venues and tailgates. Nothing compares to yesterday.” To save the moment for posterity, Brooker turned his phone’s camera on himself and fired.
Only after he scrolled through his pictures did Brooker realize he had snapped the college football chaos version of the V-J Day in Times Square photo. As Ole Miss students ripped down the goalposts to rejoice vanquishing the Crimson Tide for the first time in 11 years, one couple chose to make a different on-field memory.
The image perfectly captured what might have been the wildest weekend in college football history. Five of the top eight teams in the AP Poll lost. Perennial underdogs rose. Traditional powers fell. Preseason assumptions were dashed. Postseason hopes were boosted or battered. The state of Mississippi, after decades of ceding superiority to neighbors Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee, suddenly became the center of the college football universe. When up is down, down is up and nothing makes sense anymore, sometimes the best option is to just make out on the field.
What do we know following a weekend of chaos? Nothing -- except that college football remains the nation’s most enjoyable spectator sport by a vast margin. No other sport could pack so much drama into a three-day span. By late Saturday night, when Utah finished off UCLA and Arizona State received its ride on the Pac-12 Hail Mary roller coaster, it was easy to forget that everything began with Arizona, a 24-point underdog, taking down Oregon in Eugene. Here is a list of the craziness, in chronological order:
• Arizona beats Oregon 31-24. Winning conference games isn’t easy when a team is missing its top three offensive tackles because of injuries. The Ducks were going down eventually, but the Wildcats decided to get them early.
• Utah State beats BYU 35-20. The Cougars seemed to have the clearest path to an undefeated campaign, but quarterback Taysom Hill’s season ended with a broken leg. Meanwhile, the Aggies’ Darell Garretson made his case for being the next criminally underappreciated quarterback in the Beehive State. Garretson, who was replacing the injured Chuckie Keeton, threw for 321 yards with three scores and no interceptions to help Utah State crush BYU’s 12-0 dreams.
• Mississippi State rolls Texas A&M 48-31, serving notice that the Bulldogs are indeed a force to be reckoned with in the SEC West.
• After a 37-20 loss to Oklahoma State, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard blasts the Big 12’s officiating crews. We’ll discuss this more later, but in other weeks this might have been the biggest story.
• Florida escapes Tennessee 10-9, possibly saving Will Muschamp’s job.
• Ole Miss shocks Alabama. Saliva is swapped on the field.
• Northwestern gives up 259 rushing yards to Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, but still beats the Badgers 20-14. The Wildcats, who weren’t expected to win a game in the Big Ten, are suddenly 2-0 in league play.
• Rutgers students swarm the field after a 26-24 win over Michigan. The celebration was for the school’s first Big Ten win -- not because the students respected the Wolverines as an opponent. Meanwhile, Michigan dropped to 0-4 this season against power-conference teams and Notre Dame.
• Kentucky beats South Carolina 45-38 in Lexington. If not for an inattentive back judge in Gainesville on Sept. 13, the Wildcats would probably be 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. Still, 4-1 (2-1) is outstanding considering how low the program was when coach Mark Stoops was hired in December 2012. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks’ string of double-digit win seasons appears destined to end.
• Utah shocks UCLA 30-28 in the Rose Bowl, leaving Arizona as the lone remaining unbeaten in the Pac-12.
• Just because the weekend needed a proper capper, Cal and Washington State combine to gain 1,401 yards and score 119 points. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday breaks David Klingler’s NCAA single-game record with 734 passing yards, but the Bears wind up winning 60-59 when the Cougars kicker misses a field goal attempt shorter than an extra point.
So, what does this all mean for the playoff picture? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Everything could change again by the time the selection committee meets for the first time on Oct. 28.
In the Big 12, Baylor and TCU will face off this week for conference supremacy, but the following week Baylor plays at West Virginia, Oklahoma State plays at TCU and Kansas State plays at Oklahoma. All of those games could affect the league title and/or playoff races. In the Pac-12, Oregon’s matchup at UCLA on Saturday feels like an elimination game. In the (sort of) ACC, Notre Dame will visit one of its mandated five ACC foes when it faces Florida State in Tallahassee on Oct. 18.
Meanwhile, the SEC west remains a complete mystery. The Magnolia State ruled last weekend, but with Ole Miss heading to College Station and Auburn visiting Mississippi State in Starkville on Saturday, the balance could shift again. Alabama will face a dangerous Arkansas team coming off a bye week.
When Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze met Alabama’s Nick Saban on the field before last week’s game, Freeze cracked that at least in the NFL’s NFC East an 8-8 team can make the playoffs. In the SEC West, two losses will probably knock a team out of contention. “Some of us are going to have several losses,” Freeze said later.
However, if this past weekend taught us anything, it’s that no one knows when those losses will come, or just how gut-wrenching they’ll be. So celebrate the wins as hard as you can. Tear down a goalpost. Smooch your date. Enjoy it all, because no one knows what the following Saturday will bring.
Iowa State's AD can take no more
After yet another controversial call went against Iowa State -- this time a goal-line stuff of Oklahoma State that was called a touchdown upon review -- Cyclones athletic director Jamie Pollard blasted Big 12 officiating. Pollard’s comments will almost certainly draw a fine from the league office, but he felt the need to stand up for his team. He also kept Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads from having to complain about the officiating after a 37-20 loss that probably would have been a loss regardless of the call. Still, combined with a botched call earlier this season against Kansas State and a blown call last year that cost the Cyclones a win against Texas, Pollard had enough.
“Coach Rhoads and I have tried to deal with that internally and have tried to do it the right way, but it’s no longer fair to put our student-athletes, our coaching staff and our fans in that position,” Pollard said. “Coach Rhoads and I, a year and a half ago, raised an issue, and we were the lone vote. And ever since that time, we’ve been on the short end of the stick. I don’t know how things change, but it’s frustrating, and it’s not fair.”
Pollard didn’t elaborate on the issue that was raised, but his implication of a conspiracy against the Cyclones will likely draw a thorough rebuke. This is a fascinating situation. The Big 12 obviously has to defend itself against such an accusation. If there is any hint that officials are treating one program unfairly, it undermines the entire conference. This is why Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott erred in 2013 when he didn’t immediately fire coordinator of basketball officials Ed Rush when it became apparent Rush had it in for Arizona coach Sean Miller. Scott later jettisoned Rush, presumably after common sense intervened. If someone is targeting Iowa State, they should be fired. If the issues happen to be isolated cases of officiating incompetence, then the league needs to work harder to make sure its officials get calls correct. But it must also come down hard on Pollard for planting seeds of doubt in fans’ minds.
Meanwhile, is Pollard supposed to sit idly by when his team keeps getting stiffed? He has tried handling this behind the scenes and the problem remains. How else is he supposed to address it? If his rant gets inside the heads of the officials who work Iowa State games and helps the calls go his team’s way more often, then it will be worth whatever amount Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby fines Pollard.
Projected College Football Playoff
The Tigers' victories over Kansas State and Arkansas look better with each passing week, and their schedule seems a little less brutal with South Carolina (Oct. 25) appearing so ordinary. If Auburn can navigate everything in its path, it would earn the playoff’s top seed. Given the quality of competition, it is much more likely that the Tigers will take a loss along the way. But so might everyone else.
2. Mississippi State
Auburn gets the nod over the Bulldogs because the Tigers have the experience of a run to the national title game. But those two teams can sort the rankings out when they play in Starkville on Saturday. Mississippi State's win over Texas A&M was even more impressive because the Bulldogs dominated without center Dillon Day, who was suspended. Day will return this week, meaning Mississippi State's offense should be even more potent than it was against the Aggies. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ front seven looks well equipped to handle anything Auburn -- or Alabama or Arkansas -- will send its way. Something special may be brewing in Starkville.
The Horned Frogs finished third in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (4.83) last year. They finished first in the league (4.92) in that category in 2012. And that was with a popgun offense that often forced the defense to stay on the field too long. This year TCU has a capable offense designed to suit quarterback Trevone Boykin. That rising tide is floating all purple boats, and it showed in Saturday's win over Oklahoma, which to that point had looked like the nation's best team. TCU nearly shocked Baylor with an inferior offense last season. A Horned Frogs win over the Bears wouldn't be the least bit shocking this fall.
4. Florida State
The Seminoles looked lackluster early against Wake Forest, but that can probably be chalked up to boredom. Florida State will either beat Notre Dame on Oct. 18, proving itself worthy of making the playoff, or it will open a spot for another team.
A random ranking
Last weekend was the college football equivalent of the Red Wedding. In honor of that, here are the top five members of House Stark in the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones series.
1. Arya Stark
2. Brandon “The Builder” Stark (He built the freaking Wall, for goodness sakes.)
3. Catelyn Tully Stark
4. Jon Snow
5. Eddard Stark
Play of the week
Much of TCU’s tricky kickoff return got wiped out by a holding penalty, but it was too brilliant not to honor. Horned Frogs coaches instructed tailback B.J. Catalon, one of two players deep to receive an Oklahoma kick, to play dead by lying in the end zone. Catalon used TCU’s uniform (purple helmet, black jersey, purple pants) as camouflage to blend into the purple paint inside the “O” in “Horned Frogs.” To the Sooners’ kickoff coverage team, Catalon looked like part of the field.
When Cameron Echols-Luper caught the kick on the right side of the field, he waited a beat for Oklahoma players to converge to that side. Once they committed, Echols-Luper threw the ball across to Catalon, who had popped up undetected. Catalon reached the TCU 47-yard line before getting tackled, but David Porter was flagged for holding at the 40. The Frogs got the ball at their own 30-yard line.
“Through most of my years I’ve been very conservative with the kicking game,” TCU coach Gary Patterson told the Dallas Morning News. “But in this league, you better bring all your guns. That was one of our shots.”
Big Ugly of the week
This week’s honoree is Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. I don’t refer to Nkemdiche as a “defensive end” or “defensive tackle” because he moves around so much. He played both positions in the Rebels’ victory over the Tide. Nkemdiche’s five tackles don’t tell the story of how disruptive he was. Watch the 6-foot-4, 280-pounder work from a three-technique on this play against Bama right guard Leon Brown.
1. A controversial incomplete pass call stiffed Michigan on its final drive at Rutgers, but there is no guarantee Wolverines kicker Matt Wile, whose 56-yard field goal attempt was blocked in the waning moments, wouldn’t have also had a shorter try blocked. (Though longer kicks usually have a lower trajectory, making them easier to block.) Michigan can't, however, blame the officials for Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova's 404 passing yards with three touchdowns. Obviously, the Wolverines dealt with a lot of noise last week due to the staff and administration's bungling of the Shane Morris situation. But Michigan seems to break down in one or more phases every game.
Judging by the way AD Dave Brandon left coach Brady Hoke to twist in the wind as questions poured in about the handling of an injured Morris against Minnesota, we can safely assume the decision regarding Hoke's fate has already been made. The question now: When will Hoke be let go? One logical point may be after this week's Penn State game. The Wolverines have a bye before facing Michigan State in East Lansing on Oct. 25 The bye would give the players and assistants a chance to regroup. Also, firings can occasionally have a galvanizing effect for a team. That might be the only way the Wolverines have a chance against the Spartans.
Or, Brandon could keep Hoke through the season to save money. If Hoke remains employed by Michigan on Jan. 1, his buyout would drop by $1 million. This option seems unlikely, because coaches who change jobs tend to want to move in December. Waiting could dilute the candidate pool, possibly even more than Brandon’s tossing Hoke under the bus did.
2. Had things gone a little differently in Knoxville on Saturday, Florida coach Will Muschamp might have also been on the clock. But the Gators escaped with 10-9 win after Muschamp finally yanked quarterback Jeff Driskel -- who had thrown three interceptions at that point -- and replaced him with freshman Treon Harris, who led both of Florida's fourth-quarter scoring drives. After the game Muschamp said the staff would have to evaluate the quarterback situation, but there doesn't appear to be much to evaluate. Most of the Gators’ remaining opponents play better defense than Tennessee, and Harris helped the offense move the ball. Driskel did not. Florida faces a reeling LSU team this week in The Swamp, and there still isn't enough film on Harris to allow Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis to develop a complete game plan. That could afford Florida an edge for at least a few series, and given the way LSU has looked on offense against SEC teams, a few quick scores might be enough. If the Gators go back to Driskel, Chavis should know exactly what to call.
3. This is the earliest Alabama has lost since 2007, but Saban -- though clearly ticked after losing to Ole Miss -- reminded everyone that the Crimson Tide's season is not over. “The big question for our team is how do you respond to a loss?" Saban said. "We’ve had several teams around here that have lost games that have responded the right way and had pretty good seasons.”
Of Alabama's three national titles under Saban, only one came because of an undefeated campaign. “Every goal that we have as a team is still in front of us," Saban said. "But we have to improve, and we have to respond the right way to losing so that we can improve and become the team we want to become.”
The tricky part is the depth of the SEC West this season. Arkansas has two losses, but the Razorbacks will host Bama coming off a bye week, and the Tide may play without starting center Ryan Kelly (sprained knee). Kelly's absence was noticeable in the second half at Ole Miss. Saban had to twice burn timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties when redshirt freshman Bradley Bozeman didn't get the snap to quarterback Blake Sims fast enough. “Blake was checking," Saban said. "He was asking for the ball. And the guy was not snapping the ball.”
4. There was nothing fluky about TCU’s win over Oklahoma. Just ask Sooners coach Bob Stoops. “I have no qualms about how our team played, we came in here ready to play. Our guys had a great two weeks of work,” Stoops said. “We knew it was going to be a big challenge. The bottom line is they made plays and we didn't. They outperformed us in different areas. We had our opportunities and chances late in the second half and we couldn't take advantage of it. I give TCU credit. We made too many mistakes. They just beat us.”
The tricky part for the Horned Frogs now is the distribution of the schedule. They play at Baylor on Saturday and host Oklahoma State in Fort Worth on Oct. 18. After a home game against Texas Tech (Oct. 25), TCU visits West Virginia (Nov. 1) and then receives a visit from Kansas State (Nov. 8), which looks more every week like a Big 12 title contender.
5. After Notre Dame holder Hunter Smith mishandled two snaps and cost his team six points against Stanford on Saturday, Fighting Irish coaches had an idea. Receivers, who catch balls frequently, wear gloves. Why shouldn’t holders?
“We found a revolutionary idea that will probably be now the biggest thing in college football," Irish coach Brian Kelly joked. “We’re going to put gloves on the holder and that seemed to be the way to accomplish greatness in this game. Unbelievable. I’ve been in this thing for 25 years and we're coming up with new things every day.”
A gloved Smith caught a fourth-quarter snap and got it down in time for Kyle Brindza to kick the ball through the uprights. The Irish won 17-14, so the gloves made all the difference.
6. The SEC fined Ole Miss $50,000 and Kentucky $25,000 on Sunday for allowing fans to storm the field after wins on Saturday. The Rebels had been dinged for similar violations in 2012 and ‘13, so they received the heftier fine. It’s doubtful Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork is too worried about the fine, considering he used a photo of the goalposts being torn down as a hook to ask for donations. After all, the man has a new basketball arena to build and an end zone to enclose.
7. USC seemed to have shaken off an embarrassing loss at Boston College on Sept. 13, and it appeared poised to go 3-0 in Pac-12 play when Arizona State’s Bercovici uncorked the Sun Devils’ Hail Mary. Where does that leave the Trojans? “It leaves us with one loss in conference play,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “It leaves us with a stinging, sick feeling in our gut. It leaves us a chance to show who we are and our mettle and our resiliency. We have a tough game coming up at Arizona. We need to get ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally ready to play and I’m confident that we will do it.”
8. Utah coaches pulled starting quarterback Travis Wilson in favor of Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson in the first quarter of Saturday’s game at UCLA, and Thompson helped the Utes to a 30-28 win. Now, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has a decision to make. Does he go back to Wilson, who was the only quarterback who could move the ball in a victory over Michigan on Sept. 20? Or does he go with Thompson, who was better at moving the ball against UCLA? “I don’t want to answer that right now,” Whittingham told reporters after the game. “We have to have discussions and evaluations and deliberate about what the best course of action is. That will be coming up on Monday, those discussion and evaluations.”
9. Georgia Tech punter Ryan Rodwell showed off his wheels by running this fake for a first down. But Rodwell didn’t show off his elusiveness. He got power-bombed by Miami’s Hugo Delapenha Jr. shortly after passing the first-down marker. Tech got the win, and the Yellow Jackets are 5-0 and 2-0 in the ACC Coastal Division.
10. The Texas defense held Baylor’s high-powered offense to 129 yards in the first half of Saturday’s 28-7 loss. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, they couldn’t keep it up without some help from their offense. Even when the offense could move the ball, it found a way to fail. Late in the second quarter the ‘Horns took over on their own one-yard line. They drove all the way to Baylor’s one, where quarterback Tyrone Swoopes lost a fumble with 29 seconds remaining in the half. “I think it could be fixed,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said of his offense. “I don’t know if we say it’s a big mess. We drive the ball. We just, we have those opportunities and then there’s a breakdown somewhere.”
What's eating Andy?
Everyone in Oxford kept asking where Ole Miss would be ranked after the Rebels' win over Alabama, which is understandable. What isn't understandable, however, is any consternation about the answer. It does not matter where your team is ranked on Oct. 5. It only matters a little where your team is ranked on Nov. 5. It matters a great deal where the selection committee ranks your team on Dec. 7. Until then, stop worrying. Or better yet, follow the advice of Ricky Bobby and the fan bases at Bama and Florida State: If you ain't first, you're last. Just keep trying to be first. Everything else will sort itself out.
What's Andy eating?
People from multiple walks of life -- who live scattered across the country -- have sworn to me that Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken serves the planet's finest fried chicken. I took this with a grain of dredging flour, because fried chicken is notoriously tricky to judge. Unlike hamburgers or barbecue, where the great looks and tastes so different from the ordinary that it might as well not even be the same food, fried chicken has a thinner margin. For this, blame the relentless competence of Popeye's. In just about every city you can buy some of the nation's best fried chicken because Popeye's consistently provides near perfect fried bird.
But near perfect is not perfect, and even with fried chicken, you can identify perfect when you taste it. Gus's, I was constantly told, is perfect. Thin, light, spicy, crispy skin covers impossibly juicy meat. I had to taste for myself, and the only way to properly taste Gus's was to eat at the original location in Mason, Tenn.
Gus's has been in Memphis for years. Recently it has expanded to Austin, Oxford, Little Rock and suburban Nashville. The newer places are slick, fancy deals where the owners probably use the word "concept" a lot. The original Gus's sits in a map-dot town about 45 minutes northeast of Memphis. It has a jukebox near the door, but few other frills. It has a television, and when I arrived on Thursday afternoon, the nice lady behind the counter was waiting with bated breath to learn the final verdict as an episode of Paternity Court played out overhead.
As I approached the counter, she offered a warning. "We only have legs and thighs," she said. "Unless you get a family pack." This made my decision easy. "Then you'd better make it an eight piece," I replied.
How could I properly judge if this truly was the world's greatest chicken if I couldn't sample every piece of the bird? How could I be absolutely certain if I didn't eat a second helping of every piece of the bird?
The cook bagged up two breasts, two wings, two thighs and two drumsticks and handed me my order. About a minute later, I bit into the meatiest part of one wing. Before I realized it, I had emptied the bag.
Nothing I had been told about Gus's was hyperbole. Every word was true. It is the planet's best fried chicken. The skin is impossibly light and crispy. Juice bursts from the meat with each bite. Unlike Nashville's Prince's Hot Chicken, which is good but comically spicy, Gus's chicken is too spicy for national chains but just spicy enough to satisfy all but the wimpiest palates. It is, for lack of a superior word, perfect.
A warning: A friend who has been to Mason and to several other locations claims the satellite spots occasionally hold back on the spice. Perfection is tough to attain and even more difficult to duplicate. But it exists off a country road in Mason, Tenn.