Skip to main content
Publish date:

Midseason Awards: The Best and Worst of College Football's First Half

From best freshman to biggest flop to best performance by a coach on the hot seat, we recognize the early-season superlatives that have defined this college football season.

We’re at the midway point of the season, and the first seven weeks have been as chaotic as we’ve come to expect from college football, the sport that never disappoints. We have seen the return of some old powerhouse programs, as Miami, Georgia and Penn State remain among the eight undefeated teams, and we witnessed the chaos of twin Friday the 13th stunners when Syracuse took down Clemson and Cal blasted Washington State, two Fridays after the Cougars knocked off USC. The closest thing you get to predictable in college football is Alabama. Everything else requires a double take. Mississippi State crushes LSU, then turns around and gets blown out by Georgia and Auburn; LSU barely escapes Syracuse and loses to Troy, only to defeat Florida in The Swamp and rally past Auburn after falling behind 20–0. Surprised? Just wait till the second half of the season when the real craziness kicks in.

Below, we hand out some awards both conventional and unconventional, recognizing the most memorable performances of the season’s first half.

Best player: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley

Just ask anyone who watched the Iowa game. Barkley leads the nation in all-purpose yards at 217 per game—five more than Christian McCaffrey’s average that led the country a season ago.

2. Stanford RB Bryce Love. He’s averaging a hefty 10.3 yards per carry and gaining nearly 29 yards per game more than the nation’s No. 2 rusher, Navy quarterback Zach Abey.

3. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick. The best player on the country’s best team, Fitzpatrick does everything for Nick Saban’s defense. He’s second on the Tide defense with 4.5 tackles for loss, and he also has an interception, a blocked kick and four pass breakups.

Best Group of Five Heisman candidate: San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny

Now that NCAA all-time rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey has moved on to the NFL, Penny has proven to be a lot more than just a great return man for the Aztecs. He’s averaging 168 yards from scrimmage per game.

2. Navy QB Zach Abey. The Middies are 5–1 and Abey trails only Love for the national lead in rushing at the helm of Navy’s option offense. He has also thrown five TDs.

3. Western Michigan KR/DB Darius Phillips. The MAC special teams player of the year in 2016 is working his magic again, averaging 36 yards per kick return with two touchdowns. On defense, he has three tackles for loss, two interceptions, one forced fumble and five pass breakups.

Biggest Flop: Oregon State

The Beavers weren’t supposed to win the Pac-12, but they were’t supposed to be this bad, either. Head coach Gary Andersen bailed after an abysmal start that began with a blowout loss at Colorado State, a close win over FCS Portland State four straight losses by no fewer than 28 points.

2. Florida State. The Seminoles dropped from the preseason top five to a hard-fought 2–3 with the nation’s No. 109 offense in yards per game as Jimbo Fisher tries to pick up the pieces once quarterback Deondre Francois was lost for the season in Week 1.

3. The Wyoming offense. Senior quarterback Josh Allen had been the talk of the offseason and entered the fall with plenty of NFL draft hype. He’s athletic and has a cannon for an arm, but he’s still very raw, and the departure of three skill guys from last year’s team who are now on NFL rosters have hurt the Cowboys, who sit 126th in yards per game. Allen has a modest 7–4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has thrown three picks and no TDs in his two games against FBS teams with winning records.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Northern Illinois DE Sutton Smith

Smith came to Dekalb as a running back but was moved to defense and had two tackles for loss last season. This year, he’s been a six-foot, 225-pound terror, leading the nation in TFLs with 14.5 in just five games.

2. TCU. Gary Patterson’s team is the Big 12’s lone unbeaten, with two wins over ranked opponents including an impressive win at Oklahoma State after the Cowboys whipped the Horned Frogs last year.

3. UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. An unheralded Hawaiian quarterback prospect has blossomed into a star under the direction of Knights coach Scott Frost. Sound familiar? Frost was a Chip Kelly assistant for the Marcus Mariota years at Oregon. Now he has the Knights sizzling, averaging 50.6 points per game. Milton has a 15–2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and only Baker Mayfield has a higher QB rating. 

Best Freshman: Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor

Taylor, who was once a Rutgers commit before ultimately choosing the Badgers, ranks No. 3 in the country with 164.3 rushing yards per game.

2. Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson. He opened the year with a flourish, running for 101 yards and passing for 235 in a win over West Virginia. On the season he’s completing 65.6% of his passes with an impressive 13–4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

SI Recommends

3. Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins. When Mike Weber’s hamstring injury provided him an early opportunity, Dobbins emerged as a star. He’s second in the Big Ten behind Taylor in total rushing yards, averaging 7.8 per carry and 8.3 on first downs.

Biggest Mystery: What happened to BYU?

The 1–6 Cougars are anemic on offense and have been blown out by at least 16 points in five of their six losses, only one of which came against a team now ranked in the Top 25 (Wisconsin rolled to a 40–6 win in Provo).

2. Will the reinstatement of a conference championship game really help the Big 12 now that both Oklahoma teams have a loss already?

3. Why do Maryland quarterbacks keep getting injured?

Weirdest story: ESPN vs. Chris Petersen

This went off the rails in a hurry after the Washington coach lamented the harm late-night kickoffs did to his team’s national exposure, then got ripped on College GameDay and during one of the Huskies’ games for filling his non-conference schedule with cupcakes.

2. The disappearance of quarterbacks from the Heisman race. USC’s Sam Darnold has nine interceptions and five fumbles, UCLA’s Josh Rosen still tries to do too much and Lamar Jackson’s Louisville team has two losses by 14 points or more already.

3. Gary Andersen walking away from Oregon State, leaving his buyout of just under $13 million on the table.

Best Coordinator: Don Brown, Michigan

The Wolverines returned one starter from last year's defense and still lead the nation.

2. Mel Tucker, Georgia. The Bulldogs’ defense is No. 3 in yards allowed and hasn’t yielded more than 312 yards in a game—and they’ve faced three teams that have been ranked at some point.

T–3. Sonny Cumbie, TCU. For the past three seasons, Cumbie shared the offensive coordinator role with Doug Meacham, who is now at Kansas. The one-voice method is working well for senior quarterback Kenny Hill this year, and the Horned Frogs’ 56.7% conversion rate on third downs leads the nation. Cumbie’s play-calling and feel for working in trick plays has been sharp, as evidenced by the two gadget plays TCU pulled off to beat a good West Virginia team in Week 6.

T–3. Alex Grinch, Washington State. The Cougars’ two-deep is filled with two- and three-star recruits, but Grinch has still fielded the No. 10 defense in the nation and shut down USC two weeks after losing the quarterback of the unit, linebacker Peyton Pelluer, for the year. 

Best Coordinator, New Hire Division: Jedd Fisch, UCLA

Fisch has lifted the Bruins’ offense to eighth nationally in yards per game after it finished 91st last season. In addition, they’ve improved to No. 24 in third-down offense after ranking No. 103 in 2016.

2. Tim DeRuyter, Cal. His defense has 20 takeaways in seven games—two more than it had all of last year—and two more sacks (20) than last season’s total as well. The Bears have also gone from 122nd to 52nd in yards per play allowed.

T–3. Jake Spavital, West Virginia. Dana Holgorsen handed the offensive playcalling reins over to his protegé who came over from Cal, and it has paid off: West Virginia is No. 5 in total offense (up from No. 17 in 2016), gashing people with its Justin Crawford–led run game and hitting big plays downfield in the passing game.

T–3. Jim Leavitt, Oregon. He turned a dreadful defense at Colorado into a formidable one, and he’s pulled the same trick early on in Eugene. The Ducks rank 28th in yards per play allowed, up from 115th last season.

Best coaching job: Gary Patterson, TCU

There’s one unbeaten in the Big 12 and it’s the Horned Frogs who handled Oklahoma State in Stillwater and found enough ways to beat West Virginia.

2. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State. He took over a team that won one game last year and has them 4–2—and those two losses came against Alabama and Washington. Tedford’s specialty is offense, and he has lifted the Bulldogs from 125th to 45th in scoring offense.

3. Kirby Smart, Georgia. His defense is nasty, and the Bulldogs didn’t miss a beat when they were forced to turn to true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm in the season opener. 

Best coaching job, New Hire Division: Jeff Tedford, Fresno State

2. Jeff Brohm, Purdue. He has wasted little time exciting a fan base that had been stuck with a lot of bad football in recent years. The Boilermakers are 3–3, and they led Michigan in the third quarter and had Louisville on the ropes in Week 1.

3. Willie Taggart, Oregon. The Ducks are extremely young and pretty banged up, but they’re 4–3 and have already matched last season’s win total, looking like a much more physical and energetic operation.

Best coaching job, Hot Seat Division: Dave Doeren, NC State

After a season-opening loss to South Carolina that seemed to spike an entire summer’s worth of enthusiasm, the Wolfpack have won five in a row, knocking off both Louisville and FSU.

2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are much improved on defense, and their offense still gives opponents nightmares even after losing star quarterback Pat Mahomes to the NFL. Kingsbury briefly got Tech back in the Top 25 for the first time since 2013.

3. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. He shook up his staff and made some very shrewd hires, including defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Despite breaking in a new quarterback in Brandon Wimbush, the Irish are just a narrow loss to top-five from being undefeated.

Upset of the Year: Syracuse 27, Clemson 24

Dino Babers has made the Orange interesting again. Last Friday his team came in as 24-point underdogs and stopped the defending champs’ 12-game winning streak away from Death Valley, outgaining the Tigers 440–317. That put an abrupt stop to the talk that a third straight Clemson-Alabama matchup in the national title game was a veritable lock.

2. Iowa State 38, Oklahoma 31. The Cyclones had to rely on one quarterback making his first college start in Kyle Kempt and another who had switched to starting middle linebacker in Joel Lanning to take down the Sooners, who entered as 31-point favorites.

3. Cal 37, Washington State 3. Defeating a top-10 team was one thing, but leaving a Mike Leach team in the dust by 34 points was another.

Worst Play: Third-and-93

On its way to a blowout loss to Mississippi State, Louisiana Tech started in the red zone and ended with the most hopeless third-and-goal situation you’ll see, thanks to a bad snap that sailed past quarterback J’Mar Smith, then was booted and batted backwards before Louisiana Tech recovered at its own seven-yard line.

2. Georgia Tech’s failed two-point conversion attempt that sealed an overtime loss to Tennessee. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson said it should’ve been an easy walk-in score, but it fell apart because one of his guys blew an assignment.

3. Kansas’s cut blocks. The Jayhawks lost to Ohio on an afternoon low-lighted by a play in which the entire Kansas O-line attempted a cut block and failed to keep the Bobcats from swarming quarterback Peyton Bender for an easy sack.