Welcome back to Rewind Monday, where we take a closer look at the weekend's top storylines in college football. This week, we check in on where several races stand one month into the season.
College football kicked off Season No. 150 a month ago. Remember Florida’s 24–20 win over Miami in a sloppy Week 0 game on Aug. 24? We know—it was forgettable. From there, it got better and as the stakes get higher, the drama is sure to rise as well.
What do we know on Sept. 23 that we did not know on Aug. 23? The LSU-Alabama game on Nov. 9, a 9–6 slugfest eight years ago, could be 49–46 this year. Oklahoma could legitimately produce a third straight Heisman winner. Cal—Cal—is likely the Pac-12’s last hope for a playoff bid. Wisconsin’s preseason ranking (19) wasn’t high enough. Michigan’s preseason ranking (7) was too high. Under second-year coaches, Tennessee, Florida State, UCLA, Ole Miss and Arkansas are years away from contending for anything other than a second-tier bowl. USC is on its third different starting quarterback and is 3–1. The ACC Coastal Division is somehow worse than we all thought, and the SEC West is somehow better than we all thought. The Mountain West really might be stronger than the Pac-12, and Liberty coach Hugh Freeze is capable of coaching from a hospital bed, medical chair and raised platform.
Whew. What an insane four weeks. In honor of the completion of this first month, we bring you the best four of four college football categories. For this experiment, we’re pretending the season ended this past weekend. We are tasked with picking the best four teams for the playoff, best four assistant coaches for the Frank Broyles Award, best four candidates for random ESPY categories and best four finalists for the Heisman Trophy.
DISCLAIMER: there is no way that a CFP committee gathered on Sept. 23 would put three SEC teams in the playoff, even if committee members believe in their hearts that three of the top four teams in the country are in fact from the SEC. What’s that mean? We aren’t putting three SEC teams in our playoff either, even though we firmly believe that Alabama, Georgia and LSU are, right now, three of the top four teams in the land. We have to eliminate one of those three teams and despite a strong victory over top-10 Notre Dame, the Bulldogs are the odd man out.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
The Tigers’ best win so far is a 24–10 home victory over a Texas A&M team that recently lost at home to Auburn. It’s not great and honestly, it doesn’t get much better. Clemson might actually go the entire regular season—and potentially through the ACC championship game—without playing a top 25 team. So how are they No. 1 through four weeks with wins over Georgia Tech, A&M, Charlotte and Syracuse? Résumés aren’t the only factors considered for the playoff, remember. The committee goes with the best teams and we know from the recent past that Clemson is one of those teams. The Tigers’ remade defense—they lost three NFL first-rounders from the 2018 crew—is doing just dandy (they’ve allowed 40 points in four games), and despite five interceptions from quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the offense is averaging 524 yards a game.
Ed Orgeron’s club looks like a championship contender with a scorching hot quarterback (Joe Burrow) and a snazzy new scheme (the spread!). Placing the Tigers in the playoff ahead of Georgia was a difficult decision. In fact, our one-man committee during a Sunday afternoon flight from Atlanta to Washington D.C. mulled over the move for a solid 20 minutes. The determining factor: LSU has the best win of any team in the nation this season—a seven-point road victory over top-10 Texas. It outweighed the Bulldogs’ home victory over top-10 Notre Dame. The Tigers’ offense also looks more electric than anything from Georgia, but UGA has the edge defensively. In fact, LSU’s defense has Baton Rouge in somewhat of a meltdown. Take a deep breath, Tigers. The defense is a product of an offense that lengthens the game by scoring quickly. That increases an opponent’s possessions and provides shorter rest times for defenders.
There is an argument to be made that Alabama has the weakest résumé of any of these four playoff teams through the first four weeks. When your best win is at 1–3 South Carolina, you’ve had it pretty cushy. However, we all know what this Tide offense is capable of. QB Tua Tagovailoa and his quartet of receivers have Bama ninth nationally in scoring, and opposing offenses are averaging less than 4.4 yards a carry. If there’s any negative for the Tide, it’s a rushing offense that’s at times sputters. Bama is 57 nationally in ground yards. That will likely need to improve down the stretch on a schedule that includes a trip to Texas A&M, a home game against LSU and a road Iron Bowl game.
The Sooners were the last ones in our playoff, and it was a close call with Ohio State. Both have been impressive, winning each game handedly, and their schedules are pretty similar, too. Oklahoma gets the slight edge at the quarterback position with Jalen Hurts, but the Buckeyes bring to the table a better defense. You know what would be good? A quarterfinal meeting between the Buckeyes and the Sooners. Alas, the playoff is but four teams. Oklahoma’s defense has made marked improvement this year with new coordinator Alex Grinch, a not-so-shocking revelation. After all, there was nowhere to go but up. They ranked 114 last season, allowing more than 450 yards a game. Through three games in 2019 (they had a bye), Lincoln Riley’s team is giving up 100 fewer yards a game.
FOUR FOR THE BROYLES AWARD
Joe Brady, LSU pass game coordinator
A year ago, this 30-year old was the NFL’s version of a graduate assistant, breaking down film in some dark room for the New Orleans Saints. He’s in the spotlight now, the key piece in LSU’s offensive overhaul to the spread. Brady and Tigers offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger work in tandem to create the game plan and call plays. The Tigers are setting historic offensive marks each week, and after four games, they find themselves as the No. 1 scoring offense, averaging two more points a game than second-place… Oklahoma.
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because you probably used to watch Leonhard play on Sundays. The former undrafted Badgers safety played for seven NFL teams over 10 years. The 36-year old became a coach just four short years ago and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017. His first two units in Madison finished 29 and second, but this one might be his best. The Badgers are allowing 50 fewer yards a game than the next-best defensive unit, Ohio State.
Kevin Steele, Auburn defensive coordinator
Steele, 61, is a journeyman defensive assistant who's built some nasty defensive units in his four years on the Plains. This could be his best. Don’t concentrate too much on the stats (Auburn is 35 nationally in total defense), but look at the individual performances against what might to this point be one of the tougher first-month schedules of any team. The Tigers have two of the best wins nationally, and Steele’s unit proved imperative in both: 27–21 win over Oregon and a 28–20 victory at Texas A&M.
Rhett Lashlee, SMU offensive coordinator
Lashlee is on an interesting career arc, going from offensive coordinator at Samford and then Arkansas State to Auburn’s OC for four years to UConn for a season before heading to Dallas last year. He’s helped get the Mustangs to 4–0 for the first time since 1984. Led by Texas quarterback transfer Shane Buechele, SMU is 17 nationally averaging 514 yards a game. They put up 41 points this past weekend in a game at TCU, their first win over the Horned Frogs since 2011.
FOUR FOR THE ESPYS
Best Game: LSU 45, Texas 38
The nation’s first top-10 matchup of the 2019 season unfolded in Austin in front of a sea of burnt orange. Stunningly, it turned into a Big 12 shootout that—get this—an SEC team won. Quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Sam Ehlinger dueled one another in what became a second-half scoring frenzy between two teams slinging around the rock. They combined for 872 yards and eight touchdowns, and the teams finished with more than 1,100 total yards in offense.
Best Moment: Georgia going pink
The Bulldogs hosted Arkansas State in Week 4 in a pink-speckled Sanford Stadium. Georgia fans wore the color in honor of ASU coach Blake Anderson’s late wife Wendy, who passed last month of breast cancer. A season full of great moments might not top this one. “One of the classiest moves I've ever seen," Anderson said after the game. “I would say thank you to all those who showed up today wearing pink or thinking pink. They don't know my wife, they don't know me, and they didn't have to do it.”
Best Upset: Boise State over Florida State
This wasn’t necessarily the biggest upset of the first month of the season (FSU was only a 6.5-point favorite), but it’s how the Broncos did their damage. Playing across the country with a true freshman quarterback making his starting debut, Boise fell behind 24–6 in the third quarter before rallying behind QB Hank Bachmeier, eventually claiming a 36–31 victory.
Best Comeback: UCLA over Washington State
Through a month, we’ve seen some incredible comeback wins. North Carolina had two in back-to-back weeks. Nevada trailed Purdue by 17 points late in the third before storming back to win on a walk-on kicker’s 56-yard field goal. And Colorado recovered from a 17–0 halftime deficit to beat Nebraska. But nothing topped what happened this past Saturday, when UCLA, down 49–17 in the third quarter, scored 50 second-half points to beat Washington State 67–63. Welcome back to college football, Chip Kelly.
FOUR FOR THE HEISMAN
Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma QB
The numbers put up through four weeks by the ex-Alabama quarterback are truly unconscionable. Hurts is 10 in the nation in rushing—rushing!—and 15 in passing. He’s the only QB in the top 46 nationally in rushing who does not play in an option offense. He’s averaging 418 all-purpose yards a game. That is more yards than 60 FBS offenses average as a team.
Joe Burrow, LSU QB
Burrow has not only been prolific through the air (380 yards a game), but he’s been exceptionally sharp, completing a nation-leading 80.6% of his passes. He’s got 17 touchdowns on the season and 24 incompletions. And in his most recent outing at Vanderbilt, Burrow set the single-seasons school record with six TD passes. This is beyond anything any LSU quarterback has ever done.
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin RB
The only non-quarterback on our list, Taylor is living up to the preseason Heisman hype. He’s got seven rushing touchdowns and three receiving scores. He’s got three 100-yard games in three tries, including a 200-yard performance in the beatdown of Michigan. Don’t sleep on his catching skills, either. His three catches have gone for 65 yards.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama QB
The Tide QB has not thrown an interception yet, and he’s got 17 passing scores. Only two other quarterbacks—Hurts and Burrow—have a better yard-per-pass clip than Tagovailoa’s 11.6, and no QB has so many TD passes without a pick. In fact, among QBs averaging at least 300 yards a game, he’s the only one without an interception. He’s got one of the greatest cast of characters around him, his biggest advantage over the others on this list.