More man than machine: How teams ongoing evolution will shape this year's College Football Playoff
We tend to think of college football teams as machines with interchangeable parts. Seniors leave. Freshmen arrive. Parts are replaced with varying degrees of success, and the machine keeps moving.
We're wrong about that.
College football teams are more like the living organisms that make up their rosters. Sometimes they grow. Sometimes they regress. Occasionally, they can work in harmony. Occasionally, they can be inefficient. Mutations in single cells—a freshman replacing a senior, a linebacker getting dumped by his girlfriend or a coordinator leaving to become a head coach—can affect the entire body.
How else can you explain Ohio State on Saturday? Or Michigan State? Or Oklahoma State? Or Baylor?
We'll start with the Buckeyes. Were they a machine, this week's 17–14 loss to Michigan State would never make sense. Sure, Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Jeff Heuerman, Michael Bennett, Steve Miller and Doran Grant were very good players. But considering the level of Ohio State's recruiting since Urban Meyer took over, it was reasonable to assume that the Buckeyes would be as good or better athletically than the team that won the national title last January. Braxton Miller's move to H-back gave Ohio State another playmaker, while J.T. Barrett's return to health gave the roster two quarterbacks who had proven themselves on the field. Four-fifths of the offensive line returned. So did defensive end Joey Bosa, who is widely considered the nation's best pass rusher. If anything, this season should have been easier than the last.
The schedule was weak until Saturday, but this seemed like a weaker version of the Michigan State team the Buckeyes had beaten 49–37 in East Lansing a year earlier. To make matters worse for the Spartans, their potential first-round NFL draft pick quarterback couldn't play because of a shoulder injury. So, how could Ohio State lose this game? More specifically, how could Ohio State lose this game the way it did?
The Buckeyes were one-dimensional on offense, which allowed an up-and-down Michigan State defense to be reasonably confident in its ability to stop Barrett on the ground. The Spartans were one-dimensional on offense, too, but they didn't forget their running backs and probably helped themselves by limiting passing attempts and removing opportunities for Bosa and Sam Hubbard to terrorize their backup quarterbacks. They also beat the Buckeyes on both lines of scrimmage, which is the simplest explanation for the result.
The more complex explanation took shape after the game when tailback Ezekiel Elliott ripped the play-calling and essentially announced he was turning pro after this season. Later, former starting quarterback and current backup Cardale Jones hinted at a similar NFL declaration. Elliott's main point of contention was this: On Ohio State's first touchdown drive, he carried on eight of 10 plays and scored. So, why did the coaches stop giving him the ball? That drive ended with 12:45 remaining in the second quarter. He got the ball only three more times. How could Ohio State's coaches forget they had the best back on the field for nearly three quarters?Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
If you're looking for someone to rip Elliott for speaking out, look elsewhere. I have zero problem with accomplished people pointing out deficiencies in their organizations when they're correct. And Elliott was 100% correct. Would Tom Herman have forgotten Elliott if he still called the plays for Ohio State? Probably not. Has there been something simmering in Ohio State's locker room this year? It sure sounds like it. Elliott said the play-calling has been an issue all season.
In the spring, Meyer said he had learned many lessons from a 2009 season at Florida that in many ways mirrored this one at Ohio State. But the pressure of repeating—in which an ongoing cycle of misery is broken only by the brief relief of winning on Saturdays—affected that Florida organism, and it seems to have affected this Ohio State organism as well. The sum of Ohio State's parts relative to the sum of other teams' parts remains greater, but the chemistry is different. Last year's Buckeyes had unbelievable chemistry. This year's team? Well, you saw what happened after Saturday's game.
Still, the Buckeyes can take solace in linebacker Joshua Perry's words.
Well the sun came up today y'all... Would you look at that 🙃— Joshua E Perry (@RIP_JEP) November 22, 2015
They can also take solace in the fact that they are competing against a bunch of other living organisms, some of which seem quite prone to injury and equally susceptible to emotional swings.
Even the team that plays most like a machine can fall victim to emotion's effect on chemistry. Alabama coach Nick Saban believes his players' excessive hyperactivity in the moments prior to their matchup with Ole Miss on Sept. 19 helped contribute to early turnovers and a deficit the Crimson Tide couldn't overcome. (The coaches' decision to start Cooper Bateman at quarterback over Jake Coker may have also contributed, but Saban didn't say that.) So, when Saban saw his players jawing with Georgia players during pregame warmups two weeks later, he brought his team together and insisted it calm down. The Tide have played particularly robotically—this is a compliment, trust me—the past three games, and if they can limit emotional swings for 13 more days, they should breeze to the SEC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Other organisms may need to tap into an emotional wellspring to inspire them to play above their ordinary capability. One of the major drawbacks of the Big 12 contenders all playing one another over a four-week period this fall is injuries tend to pile up. This week, three of the four teams that entered the gauntlet with a chance at a conference title could start different quarterbacks than the ones they intended to play through the stretch. It's unclear whether Trevone Boykin will start for TCU or Jarrett Stidham will start for Baylor on Friday, though it sounds as if the Bears may have to go with Chris Johnson, who moved to receiver earlier this season after falling behind previous starter Seth Russell and Stidham on the depth chart. In Baylor's 45–35 win at Oklahoma State, Johnson capably relieved Stidham, who was trying to play through a back injury and left after injuring his ankle and his hand.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma may not have starter Baker Mayfield available for the Bedlam game at Oklahoma State. Mayfield didn't play in the second half of Saturday's 30–29 victory over TCU after taking a vicious shot to the head in the first half. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, still has its quarterback combo of Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh intact. That means Oklahoma may need backup quarterback Trevor Knight to recreate his performance from the Sugar Bowl against Alabama following the 2013 season. If Knight plays the way he did during his other starting stints for the Sooners, Oklahoma may not produce enough points to stay in the race. Of course, chemistry matters. Knight was elected a captain by his teammates even though he didn't win the starting job. New brain cells matter. It's quite possible first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley can design a better game plan around Knight than his predecessors could—though this might prove more difficult if Samaje Perine's injured ankle limits the Sooners' top back.
Oklahoma can win the Big 12 by winning Bedlam. Oklahoma State must win Bedlam and hope Baylor loses to TCU or Texas. Baylor must beat TCU and Texas and hope Oklahoma State takes down Oklahoma. The Sooners have grown since their 24–17 loss to Texas on Oct. 10. The Bears bounced back from their 44–34 loss to Oklahoma. How will the Cowboys handle their first loss? How will TCU, now eliminated from the title race, handle playing the role of a spoiler?Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
And how will the College Football Playoff selection committee handle these constantly changing organisms? Notre Dame is like a hydra. The Fighting Irish have regrown more quality starters than any other team in the country. But does Notre Dame's adaptability have a limit after losing tailback C.J. Prosise and cornerback KeiVarae Russell for to injuries in Saturday's 19–16 win over Boston College? If the Irish can beat Stanford in their finale, they should get credit from the committee for regenerating half a starting lineup. Still, they could be just as likely to get downgraded as the committee wonders if the Irish are healthy enough to compete in the playoff with teams finishing the season on red-hot streaks.
Michigan State, meanwhile, may benefit from the Oregon Transitive Property. Remember that? We introduced it a few weeks ago, when it seemed like something less than helpful for the Spartans.
Sept. 10: Michigan State beat Oregon by three. Michigan State is awesome.
Sept. 26: Wow. Utah just hammered Oregon 62–20 in Eugene. Maybe Michigan State isn't so awesome.
Oct. 10: Washington State just beat Oregon 45–38 in Eugene in double-overtime. Michigan State barely survived at Rutgers when the quarterback spiked the ball to stop the clock—on fourth down. Maybe that Oregon-Michigan State game didn't tell us much of anything. Also, since Portland State beat Washington State 24–17 in the season opener, does the Oregon Transitive Property now make Portland State the best team in Oregon?
It's time for a new entry.
Nov. 21: Oregon defeated Stanford 38–36 and beat potential Pac-12 South champion USC 48–28 in consecutive weeks because a healthy Vernon Adams Jr. is breathtaking. Does this fact, combined with Michigan State's win at Ohio State, mean Michigan State is awesome again even though the Spartans lost 39–38 at Nebraska on Nov. 7*? Or does it mean that Oregon grew, Michigan State played a great game in Columbus and we could be looking at an entirely different organism that will have a chance to clinch the Big Ten East Division at Spartan Stadium on Saturday against Penn State?
*On a terrible call. But still, Michigan State was in a tight game with a team that had just lost to Purdue.
These organisms could go through more mutations before the committee renders its final decision on Dec. 6. Those changes could make the Spartans the hottest team in America. They could allow the Buckeyes to get back in the hunt depending on what happens in East Lansing. They could give several Big 12 fan bases heart attacks before next weekend ends. They could allow Notre Dame to regrow enough parts to earn a shot at the national title. We don't know what these strange creatures will do, and that's the fun part.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Alabama (10–1)
The Crimson Tide ran through Charleston Southern like something through a tinhorn Saturday. (I still prefer "through a goose," but apparently the expression is different in Nick Saban's native West Virginia.) That was to be expected. Given what we've seen from Auburn this season, the Iron Bowl next weekend might not look much different. Of course, this is a rivalry game. Maybe the Tigers will come to play. But if Bama continues to play the way it has in the three games following its bye week, the next challenge the Crimson Tide will face will be in the playoff.
2. Clemson (11–0)
Like Alabama, Clemson will face a down-on-its-luck rival. South Carolina, which lost to The Citadel 23–22 on Saturday to drop its record to 3–8, is even more down on its luck than Auburn. Clemson should slam its next two opponents on its way to the playoff.
3. Michigan State (10–1)
We saw what a (mostly) healthy Michigan State defense and offensive line could do Saturday at Ohio State. The Spartans may get quarterback Connor Cook (shoulder) back for the Penn State game. Add a healthy-ish Cook to those elements, and suddenly Michigan State looks like a team no one wants to play. Why the Spartans and not Iowa in this spot? Though it has a loss at Nebraska, Michigan State has a home win over Oregon and road wins over Michigan and Ohio State. The Hawkeyes blew out 9–2 Northwestern on Oct. 17, but none of their other wins stack up. The good news is there's no reason to argue over this. If I'm wrong about Michigan State, either the Spartans won't make the Big Ten title game or they will and Iowa will beat them en route to a playoff berth.
4. Notre Dame (10–1)
The Fighting Irish have endured injuries that would have crippled most teams, and their only loss remains a 24–22 defeat at Clemson on Oct. 3. But at some point will all the injuries catch up? Tailback Prosise (ankle) and cornerback Russell (foot) left Saturday's victory over Boston College, and their status for the game at Stanford is in doubt. If Notre Dame can get through this and beat the Pac-12 North champion on the road, it will be a testament to the team's depth. But even if Notre Dame wins, its fate on Dec. 6 may come down to members of the selection committee deciding whether what's left of the Irish or what's left of the Big 12 champ is more worthy of making the field.
A random ranking
Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger captured the nation's imagination Saturday with his celebration of his game-winning field goal at Ohio State. This has been a great year for placekicking celebrations, so let's rank the top five.
1. Michael Geiger windmills
Geiger told reporters he wanted to keep moving here so he didn't get dog-piled like teammate Jalen Watts-Jackson, who broke his hip following his miraculous return of a botched punt snap in a 27–23 win over Michigan on Oct. 17. "I play too much FIFA, a video game, and that is a common celebration," Geiger told The Detroit News. "I was just trying to go the whole length of the field. I wasn't thinking."
2. Dance like no one is high-fiving
Boise State kicker Tyler Rausa couldn't find anyone to high-five after making a field goal in a 55–0 win over Hawaii earlier this season. So, he high-fived himself.
3. You don't have to kick to celebrate
Iowa State holder Austin Fischer engaged in some epic celebrations before former Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads, who was fired on Sunday morning, banned the practice. "His quiver will stay at home," Rhoads told reporters in October. The coach was afraid Fischer would get so excited that he'd draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
4. The best kicker celebrations come from 5' 11", 240-pound Brazilian kickers
You already knew Wisconsin's Rafael Gaglianone had moves. Now watch him do the "I am kicker, hear me roar" celebration after hitting a 46-yarder to beat Nebraska 23–21 on Oct. 10.
If the Badgers would only let Gaglianone play quarterback, we'd get even more celebrations.
5. YES! YES! What? Ooooooooh
In defense of Tennessee coach Butch Jones, it is difficult to tell from the sideline when a kick goes wide by only a few inches.
Big Uglies of the Week
This week's award goes to a pair of brothers for a block they'll never forget in a game they'll never forget. Michigan State center Jack Allen and his younger brother, left guard Brian Allen, each had great games at Ohio State. But the brothers' finest moment came when they got to work together on a critical play.
With 2:39 remaining, Michigan State faced third-and-one from the Ohio State 39-yard line. If the Spartans got the first down, they would have a great chance to maneuver into field goal range. If they got stuffed, the options weren't so rosy. A 56-yard field goal would be a big ask, but going for it and getting stopped would give the Buckeyes the ball about 30 yards from field goal range.
So, Michigan State's coaches called the ultimate test-of-manhood play: the quarterback sneak. The team that won this play would probably go on to win the game. The Allen brothers were tasked with moving Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Hill, who lined up shaded to Jack's left, and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan out of the space quarterback Tyler O'Connor needed to occupy to make the first down. To do this, the brothers would have to execute a combo block. They would each fire off on Hill, and at precisely the correct moment, whoever had the angle would slip off and hit McMillan. If Hill split the brothers, the play was toast. If one of the brothers couldn't get loose and hit McMillan, the play might also blow up.
The Allens fired off perfectly, ramming Hill off the line of scrimmage. By the time Jack made contact with McMillan, everyone was two yards past the line. The Buckeyes had no chance to keep O'Connor from gaining that yard. And after losing that play, Ohio State stood little chance of winning the game.
1. The reports that surfaced last week about LSU's Les Miles coaching for his job seem accurate, and Miles didn't exactly help his cause in Saturday's 38–17 loss at Ole Miss. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva declined comment to Scott Rabalais of The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate about Miles's job status on Saturday, telling Rabalais he would make no comment until the end of the regular season. But a comment made Friday by a member of LSU's board of supervisors suggests Miles was in serious trouble before the Ole Miss game even kicked off. "I think if he wins the next two games, it's still something that needs to be looked at," Ronald Anderson told Glenn Guilbeau of Gannett Louisiana. "It's the way [the Tigers] lost the two games [to Alabama and Arkansas]."
LSU started 7–0 but has lost its last three by a combined score of 99–47. The Tigers never led in those games, and they never really contended. Next, they'll face a Texas A&M team that hasn't beaten LSU since joining the SEC. But none of those old Aggies teams had former LSU coordinator John Chavis running the defense. This one does. Presumably, Chavis is well-versed in LSU coordinator Cam Cameron's offense after seeing it at practice for two seasons.
Even if LSU beats A&M, it may not matter for Miles. The biggest issue would be the $15 million buyout Miles would be owed if he were fired before Jan. 1, but that may not be as much of a deterrent because of the way the Liquidated Damages cause in Miles's contract is structured. Instead of a lump sum or two payments, the buyout would be payable in equal monthly installments over a span of eight years. So, LSU would not need all the cash on hand, and the buyout amount would be reduced by the amount Miles gets paid should he land another job. It would cost about $2 million to buy out all of LSU's assistants. Meanwhile, if LSU went after the coach everyone assumes the Tigers would chase, the move would become even more expensive. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher would owe the Seminoles $5 million if he left for another job.
2. Paul Rhoads will not have to wonder about his fate at Iowa State. The school fired him Sunday after seven seasons at the helm. Rhoads went 32–54 after replacing Gene Chizik following the 2008 campaign.
Instead of remembering the losses or trying to figure out exactly how Iowa State expects to do better considering its circumstances, let's remember the good times.
3. If you didn't realize the SEC East stunk before Week 12, Saturday offered even more proof of its stench. Division champ Florida needed overtime to beat Florida Atlantic 20–14 at home. Division runner-up Georgia needed overtime to beat Georgia Southern 23–17 at home. Meanwhile, South Carolina lost at home to The Citadel of the FCS.
The Gators, who played through multiple injuries on the offensive and defensive lines, remain a dark-horse contender to crash the playoff. But they'll have to play like a different team than they've been the past three weeks to get past Florida State and (presumably) Alabama in consecutive contests. Florida coach Jim McElwain would like to see more energy from his team. If he doesn't get it, he knows what can happen.
If the division had one bright spot Saturday, though, it was this interception from Kentucky defensive lineman Cory "Poop" Johnson.
Yes, his nickname is "Poop," though that moniker may be more fitting for the division in which he plays.
4. Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. was slowed by a broken finger earlier this season, but he has proven in recent weeks why everyone was so excited to see how he would fare in the FBS after transferring to Eugene from Eastern Washington. In Saturday's 48–28 victory, Adams became the first quarterback to throw six touchdown passes against USC.
Stanford's 35–22 win over Cal knocked the Ducks out of the race for the Pac-12 title, but Adams will still have two more games (Friday against Oregon State and a bowl game) to provide thrills. Adams now has 20 touchdown passes against FBS foes, tying him with TCU's Boykin for fifth in the nation.
5. Ohio State and Oklahoma State weren't the only undefeated teams to fall on Saturday. Houston, which entered the week 10–0, lost at Connecticut 20–17. Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who injured his ankle the previous week in a come-from-behind win over Memphis, didn't start against the Huskies. Kyle Postma, who led the comeback against the Tigers, started but got knocked out with an ankle injury late in the fourth quarter. Ward came into the game and tried to spark a Cougars' rally, but he was intercepted by UConn's Jamar Summers with 55 seconds remaining.
"[Ward] wasn't 100% or close to it," Houston coach Tom Herman told Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle. "We felt like Kyle gave us a better chance to win than a Greg Ward at 70% or so."
The loss came two days after Houston's board of trustees approved a raise for Herman that would pay him $3 million annually beginning next year. Herman is a potential candidate at several schools with head coaching vacancies. He is now 10–1 at Houston and still has a chance to lead the Cougars to the West Division title in the American Athletic Conference.
6. Speaking of titles, let's break down the remaining scenarios for undecided divisions.
• The American East: Temple can clinch the East with a South Florida loss to Central Florida on Thursday or a win over UConn on Saturday. If UConn beats Temple and USF beats UCF, the Bulls would win the East.
• The American West: The winner of Friday's Navy-Houston tilt wins the West. (Yes, Navy is in the West.)
• Big Ten East: Michigan State can win the East by beating Penn State in East Lansing. If Penn State upsets the Spartans, the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan matchup takes the division.
• Conference USA East: The winner of Friday's Western Kentucky-Marshall game wins the East.
• Conference USA West: The winner of Saturday's Southern Miss-Louisiana Tech game wins the West.
• MAC East: Northern Illinois can capture the East with a win over Ohio on Tuesday or a Toledo loss to Western Michigan on Friday. Toledo would need to beat Western Michigan and have Ohio beat NIU.
• Pac-12 South: The winner of the UCLA-USC showdown wins the South.
• SEC West: Alabama can take the West with a win over Auburn or an Ole Miss loss to Mississippi State. Ole Miss would need to beat Mississippi State and also have Auburn win the Iron Bowl.
7. In a wide-open Heisman Trophy field, Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey is putting up great numbers. Of course, only West Coast voters and night owls are seeing him play. On Saturday, McCaffrey set a school record with 389 all-purpose yards in a win over Cal. He carried 29 times for 192 yards, caught one pass for a 49-yard touchdown and returned three kickoffs for 148 yards, including a 98-yarder for a score just before halftime.
Unfortunately for McCaffrey, six of Stanford's nine Pac-12 games this fall kicked off at 10 p.m. or later on the East Coast. Next week against Notre Dame, however, the Cardinal will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET. Given Notre Dame's position in the playoff rankings, that game will draw huge interest. Another big performance from McCaffrey—who already has 2,807 all-purpose yards in 2015—could solidify his invitation to New York.
8. Some members of the Stanford band dressed as the War Boys from Mad Max: Fury Road on Saturday night. Alas, none played a flame-throwing guitar.
9. There have been rumors circulating about Texas and Charlie Strong parting ways this off-season and Strong ultimately landing at Miami or South Carolina, but Longhorns interim athletic director Mike Perrin squashed them on Friday. In an interview with flagship radio station 104.9 The Horn, Perrin was adamant that Strong will be the Longhorns coach next season. Perrin, who has injected the Texas athletic department with a large dose of common sense following the firing of the heavily disliked Steve Patterson in September, didn't leave much room for nuance.
The Texas administration is aware the Longhorns could lose on to Texas Tech on Thanksgiving and then to Baylor on Dec. 5 and finish 4–8. That doesn't seem to matter to Perrin. He is clearly committed to Strong.
To listen to the entire interview, click here.
10. Sports.Michael Shroyer/Getty Images Jamie Squire/Getty Images
What's eating Andy?
No complaints this week, because this is the time we give thanks. So, I'll start. I'm thankful for the best wife on earth, two amazing kids, a basset hound who sleeps 23 hours per day and the fact that I still haven't had to get a real job.
What's Andy eating?
For the Andy's Tailgate Test Kitchen Thanksgiving Spectacular, I made Turducken. That's a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey. It's amazing. Click the video and see for yourself.