Midseason Superlatives: Awarding best, worst moments of first half of the season
- Louisville's Lamar Jackson offered some of the most memorable performances for positive reasons, while Notre Dame's play has been equally notable for all the wrong reasons
Though it seems like just last week that Cal and Hawaii were kicking off the 2016 college football season in Australia, remarkably half of the regular season has already gone by. While we can’t wait to see what the second half has in store as the stakes get ratcheted up in late October and November, the first half offered plenty of memorable moments that are worthy of reflection.
As we turn the page to Week 8 and the back end of the season, let’s take a look back at some of the first seven weeks’ best and worst moments and games with SI’s 2016 Midseason Superlatives.
Best play: Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis's interception vs. Wisconsin
One-handed receptions by wide receivers occur so often that most of them elicit muted reactions from fans. One-handed interceptions, on the other hand, are rarer. Lewis’s grab was particularly impressive because of the difficult sequence of movements he performed to execute it cleanly. Ranging backward while covering Badgers receiver George Rushing in Wisconsin’s visit to the Big House on Oct. 1, Lewis eyed quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s long toss, adjusted his pace to account for the flight of the ball, leapt and kicked his feet together in mid-air, snatched the ball with his right hand, pinned it against his body and held on as he tumbled to the turf.
The pick came at an important time, too: Michigan was trying to protect a one-score lead late in the fourth quarter. — Chris Johnson
Best big man touchdown: Pitt's Brian O'Neill vs. Georgia Tech
This one isn’t for cheap laughs. Pitt should draw up plays for this guy at least once a game. He runs as well as plenty of tight ends (perhaps because he used to be one).
Not bad for a 6’6”, 300-pound offensive lineman. — Gabriel Baumgaertner
Best individual performance: Kalen Ballage vs. Texas Tech
No one is confusing Texas Tech for a great run defense, but Ballage’s production against the Red Raiders was still extraordinary. The Arizona State running back scored eight touchdowns, tying an NCAA record, while racking up 185 all-purpose yards.
While other players have produced prolific stat lines, part of what makes Ballage’s performance standout is that each of those eight touchdowns was necessary just to win. The Sun Devils trailed 41–37 in the second half until Ballages scored three straight times to give them the lead, and his last touchdown, a 75-yard run, helped finally put away Texas Tech for a 68–55 final. — Colin Becht
Best game: Louisville vs. Clemson
In the preseason most analysts pointed to Clemson’s trip to Florida State next weekend as the “game of the year” in the ACC (for the record: that game should be pretty good). Instead Louisville’s visit to Death Valley assumed that title after the Cardinals routed the Seminoles at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in September. Coach Bobby Petrino’s team couldn’t quite upend last year’s national runner-ups on their own turf, but it came pretty close. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and Clemson passer Deshaun Watson both rose to the occasion in a primetime thriller that wasn’t decided until late in the fourth quarter, when Cardinals wide receiver James Quick was pushed out of bounds one yard shy of a first down at the Tigers’ three-yard line. — CJ
Biggest breakout star: Louisville's Lamar Jackson
Jackson provided a glimpse of his potential in Louisville’s win over Texas A&M in last year’s Music City Bowl. Yet it remained unclear whether that performance (453 yards of offense, four total touchdowns) was a blip or a sign of things to come. Jackson proved it was the latter by compiling 25 touchdowns through the first four games of the season, more than all but one other team at that point. He has since guided the Cardinals to a 5–1 record while emerging as the clear-cut leader in the Heisman Trophy race. The sophomore’s roaring start included one of the most jaw-dropping individual performances of the season, a five-touchdown master class against a Seminoles defense stuffed with NFL talent. And as mentioned above, he played 2015 Heisman finalist and projected top-10 draft pick Deshaun Watson to a virtual standstill in Death Valley and came close to snapping the nation’s longest active home winning streak. — CJ
Most embarrassing performance: Michigan 78, Rutgers 0
That Michigan won is not at all surprising. That Michigan won by a lot isn’t even mildly startling. Before this game it would have been hard to imagine a result that would have been eye-catching (other than, of course, a Rutgers win, but no one could have ever imagined that). But 78 points? That made Ohio State’s 58–0 thrashing of the Scarlet Knights look like a nail-biter. Even Hawaii put up a better fight against Michigan and that was in the Big House one week after the Rainbow Warriors played in Australia. For a game between two FBS squads, let alone conference foes, a 78–0 margin is about as embarrassing as it gets. — CB
Biggest surprise team: West Virginia
When building SI’s preseason Bowl Projections, I wrestled with whether the Mountaineers could make a bowl game, ultimately settling on sending them to the Armed Forces Bowl, likely with six or seven wins. Instead, they hit the season’s midpoint undefeated with a realistic shot at ending the year in a College Football Playoff bowl. Skyler Howard has developed into a reliable passer with decent mobility, as well. And West Virginia boasts the best defense in the Big 12, with defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 scheme flummoxing even the most high-powered offenses of the conference. Plenty of teams can score points in the Big 12; the conference champion is often the squad that can actually get some stops. — CB
Biggest flop: Notre Dame
As West Virginia has gone from fringe bowl team at preseason to fringe playoff team at midseason, Notre Dame has done nearly the exactly opposite, except even worse. The Fighting Irish almost surely won’t make a bowl game this year. There’s always one Week 1 game that gets wildly misinterpreted for what it means for the rest of the season, and this year, that game was Texas’s 50–47 win over Notre Dame. That victory didn’t indicate Texas was back; it meant Notre Dame was in free fall. The four other losses that have followed for the Irish have only confirmed that. Notre Dame could lose as many as nine games this year if it can’t solve its issues in its pass defense (both in the secondary and the pass rush) and running game. — CB
Best coaching performance: West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen
West Virginia entered this season with an uncertainty at quarterback, a new athletic director and reduced expectations after an inconsistent 2015 season. Holgorsen appeared on most preseason hot seat lists and was expected to last maybe one more season. Instead, he’s got the Mountaineers undefeated midway through the year and contending for a Big 12 title.
But Holgorsen’s trademark offense isn’t the main reason the Mountaineers are thriving—it’s the defense. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has West Virginia stopping some of the Big 12’s most fearsome offenses (Texas Tech, most notably). That’s helped Holgorsen go from the hot seat to a playoff contender, and the offense isn’t even flying the way he’d like it to yet. — GB
Most disappointing coaching performance: Oregon's Mark Helfrich
It’s a two-horse race between Helfrich and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, but while this year seems like an outlier for the Irish, it feels like the end of an era for the Ducks. Helfrich gambled on another FCS graduate transfer quarterback (Dakota Prukop succeeded Vernon Adams) and hired Brady Hoke to shore up a miserable defense. Neither move has worked. The Ducks have suffered through a brutal stretch of injuries but can’t stop anybody (they’ve surrendered at least 35 points in four straight games) and look nothing like the deep, speedy unit that Chip Kelly cultivated in his five years in charge. After a humiliating 70–21 defeat to Washington on Oct. 8, the cries for Helfrich to be fired grew even louder. If Oregon loses to Cal this weekend (a team it hasn’t lost to since 2008) and eventually misses a bowl game, there is virtually no chance Helfrich will survive. — GB