Midseason Roundup: What a Crazy First Half Means for the Season’s End

Seismic upsets (Kansas State over Oklahoma?), unlikely unbeatens (hello, SMU!) and a No. 1 team in the land that isn't Alabama (or Clemson): The first half of the season suggests a stretch run that will be anything but predictable.
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Kansas State vs. Oklahoma

Wacky, wild and wonderful, the first half of the 2019 college football season has delivered some incredible moments. The best news: There’s still another half left!

In fact, the biggest game of year so far will happen in Tuscaloosa next weekend, when No. 2 Alabama hosts top-ranked LSU in an unbeaten duel that is sure to shape the College Football Playoff race. Speaking of that race, a handful of teams have separated themselves. The Tide are locked and loaded as always, LSU is scoring in bunches (yes, that LSU), Ohio State might be the most complete team in the country and defending champ Clemson, despite some offensive missteps, remains undefeated.

But enough about the playoff contenders. This is shaping into the Year of the Long Shot. Kansas State's 48–41 upset of then-No. 5 Oklahoma last Saturday marked the third straight weekend in which a top-six team fell to a double-digit underdog, rearranging the playoff landscape once again. Meanwhile, the Group of Five is having a banner year against its Power 5 counterparts, with 21 wins through eight weeks, the most in at least a decade.

Meanwhile, three of the sport’s blue bloods (Florida State, Nebraska and Tennessee) are a combined 11–13, while teams like Baylor and Minnesota are undefeated. UCF has already lost a game—two actually!—and Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence has doubled his amount of interceptions as a true freshman last season (4). The ACC Coastal division is a circus of incompetence, the Pac-12 South isn’t much better and the SEC West is a field of landmines (the division had three teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll in six of 10 weeks!).

Mack Brown and Les Miles, both back coaching at North Carolina and Kansas, respectively, soared to some early-season success, and Clay Helton, occupying college football’s hottest seat, is 5–3 despite starting three different quarterbacks. Michigan’s new offense hasn’t delivered as promised (53rd nationally), while LSU’s has (scoring nearly 47 points a game!). Wisconsin’s defense had an incredible four shutouts in its first six games.

Yes, college football’s hors d'oeuvres and appetizers were divine, but it all builds up to the best parts of every meal—the entrée and dessert!

Game of the Century

Like two fast-moving freight trains barreling toward one another, LSU and Alabama are on a collision course of epic proportions. Call it college football’s latest Game of the Century, a No. 1-verse-No. 2 SEC showdown in Tuscaloosa eight years after their historic meeting in 2011. The top-ranked Tigers and second-ranked Crimson Tide, both 8-0, get a bye week before their Nov. 9 duel in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

This will be the 24th regular season meeting between the AP poll’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams, and the first since top-ranked LSU beat No. 2 Alabama 9–6 in overtime on Nov. 5, 2011. This time around, expect more points. The Tide and Tigers possess two of the most high-scoring passing attacks in the nation, each with a spectacularly athletic set of receivers, a Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback and a defense that’s appeared porous at times—an about-face from eight years ago, when a pair of conservative, run-heavy offenses collided with mighty defenses.

More than any other, this is the best demonstration of the evolution of college football. Even the blue-blood powers of the sport, for years beating opponents into submission with pure strength, are now using spread concepts to outscore others. Take LSU: The Tigers scored at least 30 points in 10 straight games before being held to 23 by Auburn last weekend. In the previous 125 years of football in Baton Rouge, the program hadn’t reached the 30-point mark in even seven consecutive outings. Alabama, meanwhile, is in Year 2 of record-setting production on offense under QB Tua Tagovailoa. In fact, both starting quarterbacks have barreled through school records this season. Tagovailoa set the career touchdown record in his 20th start earlier this year, and Burrow shattered the Tigers’ single-season TD mark in Game 7. As if this matchup didn’t need any more drama, Tagovailoa sprained his ankle against Tennessee on Oct. 19. He’s expected to return in time for the Tigers, but Tua Watch is on!

Group of Five

Three letters have become synonymous with recent success from the college football subsection known as the Group of Five: UCF. But as the Knights have sputtered with losses to Pitt and Cincinnati, another three-letter school has unexpectedly taken their spot this season: SMU.

SMU football

The Mustangs are undefeated through eight games for the first time since 1982, five years before the NCAA slammed the school with the so-called death penalty for rules violations, shuttering the program for 1987 and '88. Led by former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele—one of an FBS-high 16 transfers imported by second-year coach Sonny Dykes this season—No. 15 SMU has the highest ranking in the Group of Five, which has 21 victories over schools from the Power 5, the most in over a decade, according to Stats Inc. Among the vanquished blue bloods: Florida State, Tennessee, North Carolina, UCLA, Ole Miss and USC. SMU's signature win came on Sept. 21, when it beat No. 25 TCU 41-38. The upsets have further fueled the argument for opening up the CFP to the Group of Five. "My opinion: Playoff expansion is going to happen," says UCF coach Josh Heupel, whose Knights went unbeaten in the 2018 regular season. "It's a matter of how it happens, whether it's [because of] teams like us or the fact the Big Ten champ hasn't been in for three straight years."

Market Swings

Matt Rhule, Baylor

From 1–11 in 2017 to 7–6 last year to 7–0 in his third season, Rhule is leading the country's most impressive turnaround. It's no surprise that NFL teams are interested in the 44-year-old former Temple coach.

Willie Taggart, Florida State

Hopes were high when the former Oregon coach took over in Tallahassee two years ago, but the Seminoles are in jeopardy of missing a bowl game for a second straight season. Taggart is on thin ice—but he also has a hefty $17 million buyout.

Mike Norvell, Memphis

A disciple of offensive guru Todd Graham, Norvell, 38, has the Tigers humming again: At 7-1 and averaging 39.1 points, Memphis, which faces SMU on Nov. 2, is in position for a third AAC West title in a row.

Charlie Strong, USF

The highest-paid Group of Five coach led the Bulls to a 10-2 record in his first season, but they are 10-10 since. USF ranks 122nd in total offense under the former Texas coach; in three of its four losses it has scored zero, three and 10 points.

Dave Clawson, Wake Forest

The 52-year-old has won at the Division I-AA (Fordham and Richmond), Group of Five (Bowling Green) and now Power 5 levels: The Demon Deacons are 6-1 in Clawson's sixth season. It's only a matter of time before an elite program makes a run at him.

Heisman Race: What Are the Odds?

Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: 4–3

The former Ohio State backup has transformed a long-stagnant offense, completing a nation-leading 78.8% of his throws. A win over Alabama on Nov. 9 could all but secure him the top prize.

Joe-Burrow-Celebrates-TD-LSU

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: 3–1

Last year's Heisman runner-up, Tagovailoa is outpacing his 2018 numbers, but he missed last week's game against Arkansas recovering from a sprained ankle. His health is a concern.

Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma: 4–1

Can the Sooners produce a third consecutive Heisman winner? Hurts is putting up Kyler Murray-like numbers: He's the only QB in the country ranked in the top 30 in both rushing (100.1 yards a game) and passing (308.6).

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: 7–1

The Buckeyes are third in the nation in scoring offense (48.3 points a game), and the transfer from Georgia is a big reason why. Fields has accounted for 33 touchdowns—more than 94 FBS teams have scored.

Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: 20–1

The nation's sack leader and projected by many as the top NFL prospect for the 2020 draft, Young had four sacks in the Buckeyes' win over Wisconsin last weekend, breaking into the conversation.

What’s Hot

1. Transfer QBs

It's not just Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow and Justin Fields who have made an instant impact at their new schools. Jacob Eason (Georgia to Washington) and Shane Buechele (Texas to SMU) are a combined 13–3.

2. Surprise Unbeatens

Baylor, Minnesota and SMU are three of the remaining 10 teams in the FBS that enter Week 10 without a loss. The Bears, 7–0 for the first time since 2013, have won in overtime and on a last-second field goal. The Gophers, 8–0 for the first time since 1941, escaped with one-possession wins in their first four games. The Mustangs, 8–0 for the first time since 1982, needed a 21-point comeback against Tulsa.

3. Punters

This is a golden age of the big boot: A decade ago, only one player averaged 46 yards or more per punt; this year, 15 players are topping that mark, led by Texas A&M's Braden Mann, who leads the nation (48.9 yards).

What’s Not

1. Preseason Darlings

Texas (5–3) was supposed to contend for a playoff berth, Nebraska (4–4) was a popular sleeper pick and Syracuse (0–4 in the ACC) was ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1998.

2. Sunshine State Schools

Three Florida programs with high hopes have fallen flat: UCF's 25-game regular season unbeaten streak ended, Florida State is 4–4 and Miami didn't notch a Power 5 win until October.

3. Pac-12

For the first time since expansion in 2011, the conference entered October without an undefeated team. The Pac-12 hasn't had a playoff team since '16. Oregon is its only team with a realistic shot at the playoff.