Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (social distancing handbooks sold separately at SMU):
FIRST QUARTER: THE ETERNAL TEXAS TWO-STEP—ONE FORWARD, ONE BACK
The two richest athletic departments in America are Texas (1) and Texas A&M (2), both of them raking in more than $212 million in 2018-19 with their massive stadiums and huge fan followings. They also sit on some of the most fertile recruiting soil in America. Yet in a sport that rewards the wealthy and the geographically blessed, the Longhorns and Aggies continue to produce middle-class results year after year.
The latest underwhelming return on investment came Saturday. Texas lost for the sixth time in the last seven meetings with TCU, a program that once was its punching bag for decades. Meanwhile, Texas A&M was routed by Alabama—and while there is no shame in losing to the Crimson Tide, the school aspires to be more than just be another bug splattered on the SEC West windshield. (Alabama, Auburn and LSU all have won the West since A&M arrived in 2012; the Aggies have not.)
Both teams have four-year starting quarterbacks, and both coaches have had enough time to recruit the players they should need to compete at a Top Ten level. Yet thus far this season, Texas is 2-1 with an extremely fortunate victory over Texas Tech, and A&M is 1-1 with a grim slog of a win over Vanderbilt.
The irony here is that two programs that do not like each other and very much want to be better than the other are almost identically mediocre. Since Texas played in the BCS Championship Game after the 2009 season, the Horns are 49-43 in Big 12 play. Since Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy season in ’12, the Aggies are 29-29 in the SEC.
Both programs win more games overall than they lose, but not a lot more; they rarely win big games; they do not win their conference; they do not perform up to their perennially inflated preseason rankings; they do not perform up to their recruiting rankings; they recently spent big to land head coaches and coordinators who have not yet delivered.
Excluding bowl games, which are largely cosmetic crapshoots, Tom Herman (3) is 1-9 at Texas against teams who finished the season ranked. He’s being paid $6 million this year, and after hiring seven new assistants in the offseason the total staff salary pool is significantly higher than 2019. Jimbo Fisher (4) is 2-8 at A&M against teams that finish the season ranked. He’s being paid $7.5 million a year and has a $2 million defensive coordinator in Mike Elko. (Alabama’s $2.5 million offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, got the best of Elko Saturday.)
Herman is 27-16 in his first 43 games in Austin, a .628 winning percentage. Mack Brown was 26-17 in his final 43 games at Texas, a .605 winning percentage that got him fired despite nine straight 10-win seasons that preceded the downturn. Under Herman, Texas is 18-11 the Big 12; Iowa State has the same league record in that span.
Fisher is 18-10 in his first 28 games in College Station, a .643 winning percentage. Kevin Sumlin was fired at A&M with a .662 winning percentage. The Aggies (10-8) are two games better than Mississippi State (8-10) in SEC play since Fisher arrived.
Should either Herman or Fisher be fired? Not unless the bottom completely falls out, and even then it would be financially irresponsible. The buyouts for them and their staffs would be exorbitant. This is the path Texas and Texas A&M have chosen, and they’ll just have to keep walking down it for a while longer.
But other than bank account, fan backing and tradition, there isn’t anything special going on at the two biggest football programs in Texas.
Texas isn’t even the worst of the Big 12’s big problems—that dishonor falls to Oklahoma (5), which is now 0-2 in the league for the first time this century after losses to teams that were previously beaten by Sun Belt Conference opponents. When Louisiana and Arkansas State can do what the Sooners could not, that’s bad.
That leaves 3-0 Oklahoma State (6) as the last unbeaten in the downtrodden conference. And while the Cowboys haven’t been dazzling, their first two victories gained some cache over the weekend when Tulsa upset UCF and West Virginia beat Baylor. (Beating Kansas continues to count for nothing.)
Freshman quarterback Shane Illingworth has done a nice job since being pressed into duty late in the Tulsa game, developing a productive connection with star wideout Tylan Wallace. Chuba Hubbard finally got untracked a bit more in the running game Saturday. And the Oklahoma State defense is leading the conference in points allowed per game (9.0), yards allowed per play (4.05) and yards allowed per rush (2.46).
The most likely outcome of the Big 12 race seems to be the top two teams losing at least one league game, and quite likely more. That almost certainly would finish the job of removing this lightweight Power 5 conference from College Football Playoff consideration. But for now, OAN cowboy Mike Gundy has an intriguing opportunity sitting on his plate in Stillwater.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
Speaking of the playoff, here’s how the Dash would seed the top four teams if today were Selection Sunday:
Sugar Bowl: Top seed Alabama (7) vs. fourth seed Miami (8).
The Crimson Tide reasserted itself Saturday with that blowout win over Texas A&M. Nobody is more capable of stretching the field in the passing game than ‘Bama, which hit three scoring plays longer than 60 yards against the Aggies. (Next man up on the Tide wide receiver assembly line is sophomore John Metchie, who is averaging 36 yards per reception through two games.) Alabama’s next task will be getting its running game cranked up after a couple of pedestrian showings in that department. Next game: at Mississippi, coached by former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saturday.
The Hurricanes had the weekend off, allowing them to lock in on the program’s biggest game since 2017 at least—against Clemson Saturday. There has been a lot to like about Miami’s new-look offense, led by transfer quarterback D’Eriq King and new coordinator Rhett Lashlee—it leads the ACC in total offense and is one of two teams in the league yet to throw an interception this season. Unfortunately for Miami, safety Gurvan Hall will miss the first half of the Clemson game after a targeting ejection against Florida State Sept. 26.
Rose Bowl: Second seed Clemson (9) vs. third seed Georgia (10).
The Tigers had to work a little harder Saturday, playing their starters most of the way in a 41-23 victory over Virginia. The Cavaliers became the first ACC opponent since 2017 to produce more than 400 yards total offense against Clemson, which will give coordinator Brent Venables some things to work on this week. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence extended his streak of games without an interception to 11 and had his ninth career 300-yard passing game. Next for Clemson: Miami in Death Valley Saturday.
The Bulldogs barged into the playoff picture by bullying Auburn between the hedges. That 27-6 whipping showed where this team will be toughest—in the trenches. Georgia ran for 202 yards against the traditionally stout Tigers, and its defense dominated the night. When all is said and done, this might be the best defensive unit in the country. Next for Georgia: home vs. Tennessee Saturday.
Also considered: Florida, Notre Dame, BYU.