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Forde-Yard Dash: Ugly Week Sinks Big-Brand Programs

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Lateral Capital of America” T-shirts sold separately at Rutgers):

MORE DASH: Heisman Race | COVID Issues | Non-Passers

FIRST QUARTER: BIG-BRAND MISERY

It was an ugly Saturday for some of the most tradition-steeped and avidly followed programs in the sport. Lousy performances, angry fans, seasons careening from hopeful to hopeless—there were many losses to programs the big brands are accustomed to dominating.

Six schools that rank among the 13 biggest stadiums in the game should be really happy they are playing in front of reduced (or zero) capacity this season. Because the reception from the home crowd would not be pleasant at this point. Naturally, The Dash has a list:

Michigan (1). Stadium capacity: 107,601. Rank: first. Record: 1-2. Saturday debacle: routed in Bloomington by Indiana. Last losing season: 2014.

After an optimistic opener, the bottom has fallen out with shocking speed. The Wolverines have not only lost consecutive games to very bad Michigan State and quite good Indiana, they never led for a second in either game. The fan base has abandoned hope that Jim Harbaugh will ever be the savior he was supposed to be, and is now transitioning to compiling wish lists of successors. (The saving grace here is that Harbaugh’s contract runs out after next season, which means the buyout is not as scandalous as many others.) Defensive coordinator Don Brown, touted for years as a mastermind, has seen his unit surrender more than 300 passing yards in four of Michigan’s last five games: Ohio State and Alabama last year, then the Spartans and Hoosiers this year. The Wolverines defense also hasn’t forced a turnover in the past two games. How much does this team really want to compete over the next six weeks?

Nov 7, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin stands with quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the playing of the alma mater following the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State (2). Stadium capacity: 106,572. Rank: second. Record: 0-3. Saturday debacle: blown out by Maryland. Last losing season: 2004.

Same question applies here as it does in Ann Arbor: are the Nittany Lions really into this season, or have they checked out? Certainly, the last-play loss to Indiana in a game Penn State should have had cinched in the final minutes stung. Then the bounce-back didn’t happen against Ohio State. Combined record of those two opponents: 6-0. But when you basically don’t show up for kickoff against Maryland, fall behind 21-0 and trail 35-7 early in the third quarter, something is wrong. Also like Michigan, Penn State hasn’t led for a second of either of its last two games. The personnel losses have been major, with the team’s best player (Micah Parsons) opting out and its two leading rushers (Journey Brown and Noah Cain) gone. But there also are questions about whether quarterback Sean Clifford (six turnovers thus far) is meshing with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. This is a program accustomed to a soft entry to the season with a couple of lightweight non-conference opponents; jumping straight into league play has been a reality check.

Tennessee (3). Stadium capacity: 102,455. Rank: fifth. Record: 2-4. Saturday debacle: blew a 13-0 lead to Arkansas. Last losing season: 2018.

That preseason contract extension Phil Fulmer gave Jeremy Pruitt looks worse by the week. The Volunteers have now lost four straight, by an average margin of 23 points. Few fan bases are quicker to announce the program “back” than Tennessee, and they jumped hard on that bandwagon after going 8-5 last season and starting this one 2-0. Now it’s a question of whether the Vols have more than a single victory (Vanderbilt) left on the schedule. While much of the criticism in recent weeks has centered on quarterback play—and not without justification—the fact is Tennessee cannot run the ball. During the losing streak, a Vol running back doesn’t have a single gain of longer than 16 yards. Also: whatever Pruitt and his staff are doing at halftime isn’t working. Tennessee has been outscored in the second half 88-7 last four games.

Georgia (4). Stadium capacity: 92,746. Rank: ninth. Record: 4-2. Saturday debacle: strafed by Florida in the Cocktail Party. Last losing season: 1996.

Let’s be clear, everyone else on this list would love to have the Bulldogs’ problems. Georgia is not going to have a losing record, and in fact it shouldn’t lose another game. But losing twice has put the ‘Dogs squarely in position to be dethroned in the SEC East for the first time since 2016, as a season that began with College Football Playoff aspirations slips away in a swirl of injuries and poor quarterback play. Kirby Smart’s record as a QB importer/exporter via the transfer portal has been bleak: Justin Fields left to become a superstar at Ohio State; Jamie Newman arrived as the 2020 starter but then opted out; and J.T. Daniels clearly isn’t physically ready to play. Lacking even a decent game manager at this point, Georgia was dramatically outgunned by Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask.

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UCLA (5). Stadium capacity: 92,542, Rank: 10th. Record: 0-1. Saturday debacle: surrendered 48 points to a Colorado team many expected to be the worst in the Pac-12 South. Last losing season: last year.

UCLA’s inclusion on this list is an admitted stretch—it’s been decades since the Bruins were nationally relevant, and their large and famous stadium is often a ghost town for home games. But still, the upside remains real if someone can ever harness it. So far, that person is not Chip Kelly. He has mastered one thing in his three seasons at UCLA: starting the season in disastrous fashion. His first year started 0-5 before ending 3-9; last year started 0-3 before ending 4-8; and now this dud of an opener. Facing a quarterback who played safety last year and hadn’t thrown a collegiate pass since November 2018, the Bruins promptly fell behind Colorado 35-7 in the second quarter. And while Los Angeles County preseason restrictions were severe for UCLA, they also were for USC, which defeated Arizona State in its opener.

Nebraska (6). Stadium capacity: 85,458. Rank: 13th. Record: 0-2. Saturday debacle: shut out in the second half in a loss to Northwestern. Last losing season: last year.

The one game the Cornhuskers weren’t complaining about playing before the season was this one—and they lost it anyway. They didn’t like opening against Ohio State and then following it up with Wisconsin (which was subsequently canceled), and they didn’t like Penn State in the fourth week. At least now, either the winless Nittany Lions or the winless Cornhuskers will get get a victory this coming Saturday. Nebraska has one touchdown drive in its last 21 possessions, and it went all of three yards after an interception. Coach Scott Frost says he doesn’t have a quarterback controversy, but he pulled three-year starter Adrian Martinez in the third quarter against Northwestern and went with backup Luke McCaffrey. The result didn’t vary: the Huskers couldn’t finish drives in the end zone. They’re converting just 28% of their third downs into first downs, and have scored just three touchdowns on nine red zone trips.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

The College Football Playoff picture came into slightly sharper focus this weekend, with Notre Dame’s victory over Clemson helping the Fighting Irish’s case significantly without doing much damage to the Tigers. But a host of other candidates scored impressive wins as well. Here’s how The Dash sees the picture, if today were Selection Sunday:

Sugar Bowl: Top seed Alabama (7) vs. fourth seed Clemson (8).

The Crimson Tide (6-0) had an off week to prepare for reeling LSU, which is sitting there like a wounded animal waiting to be mauled by a vengeful opponent. The Tigers not only beat Alabama last season, but took their SEC West Division title away and won the national title. The ‘Bama players might just be reminded a few times of Ed Orgeron’s postgame locker room bluster “Roll Tide what? F--- you!”). Alabama leads the SEC in yards per play offensively, and LSU gives up the most per play defensively. Buckle up, Bo Pelini.

Losing in double overtime to an unbeaten opponent without megastar quarterback Trevor Lawrence and several defensive mainstays by no means knocks the Tigers (7-1) out of the bracket. There was a lot to like about the way Clemson played at Notre Dame. But defensively this is a team that needs to get back some of its top players, and it needs Travis Etienne to rebound from a rare poor performance against the Irish. Not only did Etienne not break any big plays, he made two big mistakes—fumbling a pitch for a Notre Dame touchdown and running out of bounds in a late-game situation that allowed the Irish to save a timeout. Next for Clemson: at Florida State, Nov. 21.

Rose Bowl: Second seed Notre Dame (9) vs. third seed Ohio State (10).

Why are the Fighting Irish (7-0) seeded a spot ahead of the Buckeyes? A signature win. Combined record of Ohio State’s three opponents to date: 1-7. The Irish scored their biggest victory in decades, triggering a postgame scene of pre-pandemic vintage. Notre Dame did the things it hasn’t been able to do in recent years in big games—primarily, piling up enough big plays offensively to score touchdowns on late, must-have drives. Next for Notre Dame: at Boston College, in a 1993 throwback scenario. That season, the Irish knocked off No. 1 Florida State and then were upset by the Eagles, blowing their chance at a national title.

Ohio State (3-0) rolled past Rutgers as expected, and has now outscored its three opponents 80-23 in the first half. Justin Fields is playing beautifully (more on him later), and the receiving tandem of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave might now surpass Alabama since Jaylen Waddle’s injury. Next for Ohio State: at revived Maryland.

Also considered: BYU, Cincinnati, Indiana, Florida, Texas A&M.

MORE DASH: Heisman Race | COVID Issues | Non-Passers