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Things Got Real on the Road for Several Top Teams. Who Will Grow From Their Close Calls?

This week's Punt, Pass & Pork focuses on the top-10 teams that learned a lot about themselves when road games Vegas thought would be walkovers went haywire—now we'll see who can spin those lessons forward. Plus, a new Big 12 representative in the projected playoff field (hello, Horned Frogs) and a new barbecue landmark in Waco.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who had spent the previous four hours talking trash and throwing touchdown passes, sounded drained late Saturday night in Waco. A few minutes earlier, Baylor had recovered an onside kick down eight, and suddenly the idea of losing to the Bears—who had already lost to Liberty, UT-San Antonio and Duke this season—seemed quite real.

“You get caught up in the hoopla about their record going into this game,” Mayfield said after Ogbonnia Okoronkwo sacked Zach Smith and forced the fumble that Oklahoma recovered to seal a 49–41 win. “But you don’t realize that some guys, when they get their backs up against the wall, that’s when they play their best.”

Then Mayfield found some common ground with the Bears, whom he’d promised to “spank” while talking smack during pregame warmups. “Compare it to how we went into Ohio State week,” he said. “Everybody was picking them. Nobody cared about us. It’s that same feeling.”

At about the same time in Iowa City, a victorious James Franklin savored a Penn State victory clinched by a Trace McSorley-to-Juwan Johnson pass on fourth-and-goal from the Iowa seven-yard line as time expired. “You look at any really good season,” Franklin told reporters, “there’s always one game where a team has to gut it out and find a way to get a win.”

Franklin is exactly right. Almost all the great teams have those games. Clemson needed an escape from NC State at home and comeback at Florida State last season to win the national title. The previous year, Alabama trailed Tennessee in Tuscaloosa in the fourth quarter. The year before that, Ohio State needed two overtimes to beat Franklin’s Nittany Lions and keep its national title hopes alive.

Saturday, Oklahoma had one of those games. So did Penn State. So did USC, which left Berkeley with a 30–20 win against a suddenly salty Cal. They all escaped road games against allegedly overmatched opponents—who didn’t seem so overmatched once the games started—with wins. Now we’ll find out whether any of these teams is truly great, because the best teams learn from the scares. (And sometimes from the losses, as ’16 Clemson, ’15 Alabama and ’14 Ohio State all did.)

Close, but No Cigar: Underdogs Who Provided Unexpected Scares in Week 4

The most surprising of these was the scare Baylor gave Oklahoma. The Bears had been objectively awful in their first season under Matt Rhule, and Oklahoma seemed to have shored up the defensive deficiencies that plagued the Sooners for much of last season. After Abdul Adams scored on a 99-yard touchdown run to give the Sooners a 21–7 first-quarter lead after only seven offensive plays, it seemed the rout was on. But Baylor quarterback Smith completed 22 of 38 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns in the next three quarters, finishing 33 of 50 with 463 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Oklahoma cornerback Jordan Thomas limped off the field, his status uncertain. Suddenly, the Sooners were flashing back to J.T. Barrett and Patrick Mahomes slicing their defense apart last season. Afterward, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops got a softball question about how much easier it is to learn from a win, but he wouldn’t bite. “It opened a lot of wounds from last year,” he said. “That’s the disappointing part for us. You have to be concerned.” But then he acknowledged that some positive could come from the scare. “As long as you address it and learn from it,” he said, “you can move forward.”

The least surprising of the scares took place at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes used a similar defensive philosophy—give away the underneath stuff and limit explosive plays—that they used to stun Michigan last season. That game, by the way, opened the door for Penn State to win last year’s Big Ten title. But the Nittany Lions didn’t like being on the business end of the nighttime Kinnick magic. Saturday night, they controlled the clock but struggled to reach the end zone. They needed a huge play from McSorley, who proved he’s more than the guy who runs the plays Joe Moorhead calls or the guy who hands off to Saquon Barkley. We saw the best and worst of McSorley’s gunslinger tendencies last season, but only someone with McSorley’s confidence could have fired the pass he fired on that final play. It just zipped over the top of safety Amani Hooker’s outstretched hand. Another inch down, and this isn’t a story about favorites escaping on the road but a story about the new dynamics of the Big Ten title race.

Meanwhile, USC’s trip to Cal seemed fraught with danger even though the folks in the desert thought the Trojans would win by at least two touchdowns. The Bears hung with banged-up USC for three quarters, and Justin Wilcox and Tim DeRuyter’s defense forced Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold into one of his worst games. He averaged only 5.9 yards per attempt and threw a red-zone interception in the second quarter. “I felt a little bit of pressure, but I think it’s mostly our fault for not connecting on those deep balls,” Darnold told reporters. “Some of those opportunities, we need to take advantage of those when they come our way.”

The Trojans won because the defense forced six turnovers against an offense that doesn’t compare to what they’ll see down the road. And they don’t have to look far to see the next danger spot. USC must go to Pullman to face undefeated Washington State on Friday, and the Cougars will throw a much more athletic offense at the Trojans than Cal did.

Like it did at Cal, presumptive Pac-12 favorite USC will get the best shot the Cougars can muster. The same goes for fellow escapees Penn State and Oklahoma as they traverse their schedules ahead of the marquee showdowns that will decide their conference title races. And if they don’t learn from their brushes with defeat at the hands of the kind of highly motivated opponents they’ll see the rest of the season, they all could slip against a team they underestimated.

Week 4's Top 10: Alabama Still No. 1, Oklahoma Barely Escapes Waco

A Random Ranking

I let my wife choose the Random Ranking topic this week, and she selected Kenny Loggins songs. But since I can never do exactly what she says, I’m instead going to rank the top five Kenny Loggins soundtrack songs.

1. “Nobody’s Fool”, Caddyshack II*

2. “Danger Zone”, Top Gun

3. “I’m Alright”, Caddyshack

4. “Footloose”, Footloose

5. “Meet Me Halfway”, Over The Top**

*Go ahead and fight me on this. It’s Kenny’s best soundtrack song, but it comes from one of the worst movies ever made. It’s not Kenny’s fault Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray wanted no part of the sequel.

**What, you thought I was going to put “Playing With The Boys”here?

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

This is what it looks like when an elite team flexes. Vanderbilt’s defense is actually pretty good, but the Commodores were helpless to stop the Crimson Tide from rolling up 677 yards—including 496 on the ground—in a 59–0 win. The Tide rolled so thoroughly that backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa got some quality snaps.

2. Clemson

The Tigers were tied at seven Boston College at the end of the third quarter. At home. So they get docked a spot this week. They ended up winning 34–7. They’ll probably be just fine.

3. TCU

I’ve scrapped last week’s theory that two Big 12 teams could make the playoff, but I do think the Big 12 champ has as good a chance as any of the other Power 5 champs. So this spot could have gone to either the Horned Frogs or Oklahoma. The Sooners’ defensive collapse against Baylor on Saturday was cause for concern. Meanwhile, TCU played precisely the kind of defense that wins in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs were plus-three in turnover margin, frustrating Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph into three interceptions. If you’re mad because I chose to put TCU here instead of Oklahoma, don’t worry. They’ll play at least once and maybe twice to settle the debate.

4. Penn State

It’s quite difficult to win at Kinnick Stadium at night, but the Nittany Lions escaped. Quarterback Trace McSorley had his moment, proving that his success isn’t just because of his coordinator or his running back. Penn State still has plenty to prove with the rest of the Big Ten’s best coming up in a month, but this was an excellent start to conference play.

Big Ugly of the Week

TCU defensive tackle Chris Bradley stands 6'2" and weighs 275 pounds. He was getting blocked. Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph did not put much touch on this ball. Yet Bradley still made the Tyrone Prothro-against-Southern Miss version of a fat-guy interception. Hand this man his Piesman Trophy now.

For Your Ears

Co-host Patrick Meagher and I discuss the art of surviving on the road in conference play. Also, in another installment of That Buyout Life, we break down who cooled his seat and who put off the inevitable for one more week.

Three and Out

1. Keegan-Michael Key absolutely nailed this James Franklin impression on ESPN’s College Gameday.


After beating Iowa, the actual Franklin made clear that wasn’t him on television Saturday morning. Franklin didn’t need to tell anyone this, but since everything he does is about recruiting, he’s going to remind everyone that he’s the only coach with an A-lister impersonating him.

2. This isn’t new, but a caller to my radio show brought this to my attention after we played Key’s Franklin impression. This series of ads for Cooper Chevrolet-Buick in Anniston, Ala., features a spot-on—at least in terms of physical mannerisms and pet phrases—Nick Saban by Alabama fan Mike Romano.

3. This is how a long snapper warms up or how a soccer player throws the ball into the field of play. It is not an effective way of moving the ball forward on the football field, as North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt learned the hard way in a 27–17 loss to Duke.

What’s Eating Andy?

No, Goldy. Don’t do it…

What’s Andy Eating?

Stuck midway between Austin and Dallas, Waco should be a barbecue paradise. But for some reason, the joys of premium salt-and-pepper-rubbed, by-the-pound brisket have eluded the city.

For years, Waco’s signature barbecue item was the Gut Pak at Vitek’s. The Gut Pak is a Frito Pie on steroids—corn chips, chopped brisket, sausage, cheese, beans, pickles, onions and jalapeños jammed into a Styrofoam box. It’s as delicious as it is sadistic, but it’s a novelty item. It’s the “I’m Too Sexy” of barbecue. The kind of brisket available at places such as Franklin and La Barbecue in Austin or Pecan Lodge and Cattleack in Dallas is more like “Gimme Shelter”. It requires far more skill to make, and you know it’s special the moment it hits your taste buds/ears.

Guess Family Barbecue in Waco, Texas.

Guess Family Barbecue in Waco, Texas.

Earlier this year, Waco finally got that kind of barbecue. Reid Guess left the kitchen at Lambert’s in Austin to bring exquisite, by-the-pound brisket to Waco. He smokes it on a rig he welded himself, burning through piles of Post Oak every day to produce buttery soft meat with a sweet-and-spicy bark and a glorious smoke ring. Guess operates Guess Family Barbecue out of a trailer—with picnic seating—next to a coffee roasting company in downtown Waco. His place is only a few hundred yards from the silos that mark the territory of Chip and Joanna Gaines, the HGTV stars whose Fixer Upper has created a (renovated) cottage industry in Waco. It opens Thursday through Saturday at 11 a.m., and if you get there by 1 p.m., he’ll probably be sold out.

Guess Family Barbecue's brisket and jalapeño cheddar sausage.

Guess Family Barbecue's brisket and jalapeño cheddar sausage.

The brisket is as good as the stuff that comes from the holy pits in Austin and Dallas. It is the undisputed star, but it isn’t the only thing you should order. The jalapeño cheddar sausage elevates the bronze medalist of the Texas trinity to an art form. The casing has a great snap. The guts are moist but not overly greasy, presumably because the cheddar soaks up some of the excess.

Baked beans from Guess Family Barbecue.

Baked beans from Guess Family Barbecue.

Guess also puts great care into his sides. For years, even the best Texas barbecue joints only paid lip service to sides. That has changed in recent years, and Guess has absolutely kept up with the times. His beans are some of the best I’ve ever had, mixing in chunks of brisket and avoiding the cloying sweetness that has ruined many a church potluck. But his best side item is a pot of creamy cheese grits that get ladled out into small paper trays. My party had two such trays. I ate the contents of one. When I realized my companions had filled up on brisket and sausage, I gave their half-eaten tray the side-eye. They gave me the nod, and then those grits were gone. It was the ideal chaser for expertly crafted brisket that had at long last found its way to the midpoint between two of America’s barbecue capitals.