Forde-Yard Dash: 2020 is Full of Plot Twists, Especially in College Football

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Time and Score for Dummies” booklet sold separately in State College):

MORE DASH: Rutgers Shocker | Sun Belt Respect | Malzahn Luck

FIRST QUARTER: IN 2020, COUNT ON NOTHING

There has never been a year in which daily outlooks and presumptions have changed more abruptly than this one. That goes for life in general, of course—eight months ago “zoom” was a verb and shaking hands was commonplace—but also in college football. Plot twists abound.

Take, for instance, the Big Ten conference, which already has had a couple months of wild mood swings. The league finally got its season off the ground over the weekend, and the results were everything that makes college football great: upsets, drama, excellence, controversy. Along the way, a new star was born in Madison on Friday night in the form of quarterback Graham Mertz (1), who merely had one of the best starting debuts ever.

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) is tackled by Illinois Fighting Illini linebacker Tarique Barnes (44) during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium.

The highest-rated QB recruit in school history completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions in a shredding of Illinois. It hearkened back to what had previously been the best redshirt freshman quarterback starting debut The Dash had seen: Jameis Winston (2) against Pittsburgh in 2013, when he completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Except Mertz was better from an efficiency standpoint, racking up a 273.01 rating to Winston’s 252.23.

That was Friday. On Sunday, we had a different Mertz headline. A very 2020 headline.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is required to confirm the first result, and it’s unclear when those results will be known. (Antigen testing has resulted in several false positive tests within the Big Ten, the Journal-Sentinel reported.) In a statement Sunday night, Wisconsin said it will "not be releasing COVID-related testing information regarding any individual student-athlete, due to medical privacy. We will continue to follow Big Ten Conference COVID-19 protocols developed by the Big Ten medical subcommittee and approved by the conference’s presidents and chancellors."

First sentiments first: let’s hope Mertz had a false positive, which hopefully will be known Monday. But if he is positive, let’s hope he is asymptomatic and healthy. Of secondary importance is the impact on Wisconsin and its season—but that could be immense. By Big Ten rules, Mertz would have to sit out of practice and games for 21 days if he’s positive. That would sideline him for games against Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan—33 percent of a nine-game season.

That would further impact the Badgers at a position where Mertz wasn’t even supposed to be the starter until earlier this month. Incumbent starter Jack Coan (3) was going to be the guy, but he had surgery on an injured foot and his return date is unclear but not expected to be soon. So if Mertz is out, Wisconsin could be looking at three weeks of Chase Wolf (4), who has completed one career pass for two yards and run the ball twice for 10 yards.

Additionally, Wisconsin might have to worry about both contact tracing sidelining players, plus the Big Ten’s relatively low positivity rate thresholds. If a team has a positivity rate of greater than five percent and the team population’s rate is greater than 7.5 percent, that team has to shut down for seven days. That would mean missing at least one game, in a league that has no open dates to reschedule missed games.

This is what the Big Ten signed up for, as did the rest of college football. Disruptions, lost games and lost star players have already been part of the landscape everywhere else. While the league played all of its opening week games, there was a missing head coach (Purdue’s Jeff Brohm had the virus) and plenty of missing impact players (Minnesota’s offensive line and special teams were ransacked, although there was no reason given for those players’ absence). It’s just part of the deal now.

But even with the potential for mayhem within the Big Ten in general and the possible QB breakdown for the Badgers in specific, things could always get stranger. You could be Rice (5).

There was considerable speculation in August that the Owls might not even play this season. But eventually they got practice up and running, and after canceling multiple games the debut was set for Oct. 24 — Rice would host Middle Tennessee.

The game happened, and it was an exciting one. But the Owls found what might be an unprecedented way to lose: the quadruple doink field goal (6). The video, if you haven’t seen it, should not be missed:

To reset: the game was in overtime after a Middle Tennessee field goal as time expired in regulation. But Middle then missed a long field goal attempt on its first possession of OT, which meant that all the Owls needed to do was make a kick of their own to walk off winners. But Rice played cautiously, with quarterback Mike Collins basically turtling for short losses on second and third downs and leaving a 45-yard kick for Collin Riccitelli.

The Stanford grad transfer struck the kick, which then did something that oblong objects are not supposed to be able to do when colliding with cylindrical objects. It bounced off the right upright, then the crossbar, then the left upright, then the crossbar again—somehow staying on that same vertical plane—before finally falling to the ground. No good.

That stunning result was followed by more kicking calamity on the second possession of overtime. Riccitelli’s 40-yard field goal—pushed back by a false start on the previous snap—was blocked. Middle Tennessee then scored on a 14-yard run to end the game.

Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill told the Murfreesboro Daily Journal: ”I didn't tell anyone after the game but after it hit the right upright and then the left upright and then laid on the crossbar for a second before it fell forward, I said that we were destined to win this game."

To reiterate: in 2020, anything ridiculous can happen, up to and including a quadruple doink of what could have been a game-winning field goal for a program that had to wait eight weeks longer than expected to play a game.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

How does The Dash sees the College Football Playoff now that the Big Ten has entered the fray? Thusly (assuming, as always, that today is Selection Sunday):

Sugar Bowl: top seed Alabama (7) vs. fourth seed Notre Dame (8).

The Crimson Tide (5-0) was dealt a major blow when receiver Jaylen Waddle, the most exciting player in the college game, was likely lost for the season Saturday with a broken ankle. Yet despite that happening on the opening kickoff, Alabama still steamrolled Tennessee 48-17. This was the Tide’s best 60-minute defensive performance, allowing season lows in points and total yards (302). If any roster is built to absorb the loss of a transcendent talent and remain highly competitive, it’s Nick Saban’s. Next up for Alabama: Mississippi State in Tuscaloosa Saturday.

The Fighting Irish (5-0) had their best Saturday of the season, trampling Pittsburgh 45-3. Afterward, coach Brian Kelly went ahead and upped the ante on the season: “Just playing to win games is not good enough anymore. We need to elevate our compete level, we need to coach better, we need to play better, we need to play at an elite level.” In other words, the Irish want to play well enough to be a playoff team. The defense has been performing at that level all season; Saturday what had been a popgun passing game showed some increased payload. Next up for Notre Dame: at Georgia Tech Saturday.

Rose Bowl: second seed Clemson (9) vs. third seed Ohio State (10).

The Tigers (6-0) were at their worst for much of the game Saturday against woeful Syracuse, and still managed to win 47-21. They got another kick blocked (this time a punt to set up an Orange touchdown), and Trevor Lawrence served up his first career pick six. And for the period of time when Travis Etienne was out of the game injured, the Clemson offense was pedestrian. But dropping someone any further than from No. 1 to No. 2 for winning a conference game by 26 doesn’t seem logical. Next up for Clemson: Boston College Saturday.

The Buckeyes looked pretty much as advertised in their season debut, blowing out Nebraska 52-17. The Ohio State defense, which is not as good as last year’s unit, was on its heels early and gave up two touchdowns in the first quarter-and-a-half. They were fine after that. And, really, with the Buckeyes’ offensive capability, they don’t need to pitch shutouts. Justin Fields immediately moved himself into the vanguard of Heisman Trophy contenders with a 20-for-21 passing performance and 330 yards of total offense. Next up for Ohio State: at Penn State Saturday, in a showdown game that quickly lost some luster when the Nittany Lions lost to Indiana.

Also considered: Georgia, Wisconsin, BYU, Cincinnati, Michigan, Coastal Carolina.

MORE DASH: Rutgers Shocker | Sun Belt Respect | Malzahn Luck