Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the fans and McKenzie Milton are both back:
THE MIRACLE AT DOAK, AND OVERREACTING TO BRIAN KELLY
Never has a lost helmet triggered as much as it did Sunday night. When Jordan Travis’s lid popped off in the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame-Florida State game, an incredible comeback was culminated and a hero was reborn. McKenzie Milton (1) entered a football game for the first time in nearly three years.
For the moment, it didn’t matter who won the game—whether the Fighting Irish could hold off the charging Seminoles. What mattered was Milton’s triumph of spirit. What mattered was his comeback from a devastating, career-threatening, limb-threatening injury on the day after Thanksgiving 2018, when Milton was the quarterback of undefeated UCF. His right leg was mangled on a running play, and anyone who saw that leg anytime in the next year had to believe Milton was in denial in his quest to ever play again.
Then he did play, some two years and nine months later, and did so in an emergency situation against a top-10 opponent. And he played incredibly well.
His first play was a 22-yard pass to Ja’Khi Douglas, and there were more than a few suddenly wet eyes in Doak Campbell Stadium and in living rooms around the nation. Then coach Mike Norvell did a remarkable thing, leaving Milton in the game—and the guy responded by keeping the Seminoles going until they reached the end zone for a touchdown that made it a three-point game. Travis, to his eternal credit, was overjoyed for Milton—who came back out for the next series and led another scoring drive, forcing overtime.
If this were the sole province of script writers and not subject to being constrained by real life, Milton would have led the Seminoles to victory in OT. It did not happen, for a variety of reasons, but don’t for a minute let it diminish one of the great comeback stories we’ve seen. Now we’ll see how far the story goes.
Norvell played it coy all preseason about who his starter would be, but it was clear that Travis was his guy. He may need to reconsider. Milton’s small sample size—10 FSU points in three possessions, 5-for-7 passing for 48 yards, three rushes for six yards—grades out better than Travis’s night. But we don’t know if Milton has the mobility to play a full game, especially behind an offensive line that is still being rebuilt after years of ineptitude.
Norvell was noncommittal about his quarterback position after the game. Meanwhile, his coaching counterpart, Brian Kelly (2), rhetorically wandered into a classic Twitter overreaction.
Kelly botched an attempt to re-air the old joke associated with John McKay when he was the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1970s. As the story goes, McKay’s response to a question about his team’s execution was, “I’m in favor of it.” In a postgame interview with ESPN’s Katie George, Kelly attempted to be both his own set-up man and the delivery man, and his own execution was lacking.
That prompted an online fuming that you could see coming as Kelly tried to tell the joke. The Dash’s takeaway: if you’re offended, you’re trying too hard. Find something else to be mad about, because a poorly recycled 45-year-old quip ain’t it.
MULLIGAN MONDAY: SISSY BLUE, EDSALL’S THROUGH, THE PAC-12 NORTH STEW, WISCONSIN’S QB VOODOO
Many bad things happened to teams and coaches and players on the first full weekend of the season. The Dash appraises the damage and decides who should get a break from the backlash.
The coach whose mouth did get him in some trouble over the weekend was LSU’s Ed Orgeron (3). Strutting into the Rose Bowl before the Tigers’ first-ever game against UCLA, Coach O popped off at a Bruins fan who was talking some noise. “Bring your ass on,” Orgeron said, “in your sissy blue shirt.”
The Los Angeles Times did a nice job running down the fan, David Witzling. As it turns out, Witzling wasn’t even wearing a blue shirt, sissy-hued or otherwise, but his kids were. (This would not be Orgeron’s only error of the day.) Witzling threw some of Orgeron’s own words back at him from when Coach O was the interim coach at USC, and the coach gave his bristly response.
What ensued was a Sissy Blue beatdown of LSU. It was the biggest win yet at UCLA for Chip Kelly, and Orgeron’s mouthiness gave the Bruins trolling material for days. Sunday night, the football program’s Twitter account got into the act.
This continues Orgeron’s swift and unceremonious descent from the mountaintop of a 15–0, national championship season in 2019. He’s now 5–6 since Joe Burrow and Joe Brady left for the NFL, and LSU has lost consecutive season openers for the first time since 1994–95. The Tigers surrendered 44 points to Mike Leach and Mississippi State last year (the most they’d ever given up in a season opener) and 38 Saturday to UCLA and Kelly (the third-most in school history).
If hiring Bo Pelini last year was a mistake of mammoth proportions, Orgeron’s replacement at defensive coordinator hasn’t performed much of a makeover yet. Daronte Jones is the DC, and Orgeron’s swing and miss at hiring Ryan Nielsen away from the New Orleans Saints during the offseason is looming large.
Mulligan verdict: Yes. As the LSU drama swirls, it still seems fair to grant Orgeron an Ida-sized benefit of the doubt for that opener. The hurricane that submerged the state and force LSU’s relocation to Houston had to wreak havoc on game preparation and focus. Combine that with what looks like the best UCLA team in many years, and the Tigers were set up to fail Saturday. They have a couple of weeks to recover before starting SEC play at Mississippi State Sept. 25. Then the appraisal of whether Ed Orgeron is Gene Chizik all over again can resume in earnest.
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The appraisals are all done in Storrs, where Randy Edsall (4) announced his retirement effective at the end of the season. You know it’s going poorly when you can’t even make it to Labor Day, and nowhere in FBS is it going worse than Connecticut.
The Huskies followed their 45–0 loss to Fresno State in the season opener with a 10-point defeat at the hands of FCS Holy Cross. That ran Edsall’s record to 6–32 in his second stint at UConn, which dropped out of a conference and didn’t play at all last season—yet somehow was awarded a fictional “national championship” by The New York Times. It’s just about the only thing Edsall has won since coming back to the school, which is why he’s now leaving again.
Mulligan verdict: No. Way too late for that. It bears repeating that nobody has butchered its football program as badly as UConn in the past decade.
The Pac-12 North (5) had the worst weekend for an entire collective, going 1–5 with two losses to members of the Mountain West Conference and one to the FCS Big Sky. The only victory was Oregon over Fresno State, and that was very much in doubt the entire way.
Average points scored by the North in Week 1: 17.7. Stanford barely avoided its first shutout since 2006, losing 24–7 to Kansas State. Washington scored on its first possession of the season against Montana, then its next 12 possessions yielded zero points and zero trips inside the Grizzlies’ 30-yard line. Similarly, California scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, then put up three points the rest of the way against Nevada. Washington State was outgained by 101 yards by Utah State.
Mulligan verdict: Yes, but only because this week offers big opportunities to recoup. Four of them get games against Power 5 competition: the Ducks and Huskies are in Big Ten country, Oregon visiting Ohio State and Washington taking on Michigan; Stanford heads down the coast to play USC; Cal is at TCU. Problem is, they all could get buried. And if that happens, you can kiss off the division in terms of national relevance.
And then there is Wisconsin (6). In his Illinois tenure, Lovie Smith’s only lasting impact on the Big Ten West was making Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz look like Trevor Lawrence for a game, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns in a 2020 opening rout of the Illini. A foot injury to starter Jack Coan cleared the way for Mertz to start that game, and ultimately Wisconsin wound up going all-in with the four-star recruit. That decision sent Coan into the transfer portal in December, and he wound up throwing for career highs of 366 yards and four touchdowns for Notre Dame Sunday night.
Since that magical night against Illinois, here is Mertz’s passing line: 120 for 209, 1,175 yards, three touchdowns, seven interceptions. Pass efficiency rating: 102.68. Last year that would have ranked 96th nationally, and last in the Big Ten.
But even those numbers don’t fully reflect the struggle Saturday in a 16–10 loss to Penn State. In that game, Mertz twice fumbled handoff exchanges inside the Nittany Lions’ 10-yard line, and twice took intentional grounding penalties. He looked very shaky, and a day later Coan looked very good wearing a different uniform.
Mulligan verdict: Yes. For now. Maybe Penn State has a spectacular defense and is going to make a lot of quarterbacks look bad. Maybe Mertz can regain his confidence and command Saturday against Eastern Michigan, and build from that going into the Sept. 25 game in Soldier Field against Notre Dame. Too soon to bail on a guy who has played a total of 10 college games.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
Every week, The Dash will play the role of the College Football Playoff selection committee and identify the quartet of teams that would be in the bracket—if the committee were selecting them today:
Cotton Bowl: top seed Alabama (7) vs. fourth seed Iowa (8).
The Crimson Tide looked distressingly like itself to the rest of the nation in its opener, brutalizing Miami 44–13. The major transition of replacing five first-round draft picks on offense and their rock-star coordinator? Meh, not a concern. Bama cranked out another 500-plus yards and 40-plus points, while also reinforcing the fact that it has one of the nation’s best defenses. Tide isn’t stopping.
Next for Alabama: vs. Mercer, in a matchup that is simply wrong.
The Hawkeyes scored an emphatic opening win over ranked Indiana, blowing out the Hoosiers 31–6. Iowa jumped on top 14–0 in less than three minutes and led 31–3 at halftime. Quarterback Spencer Petras was pretty pedestrian, but the usual staples—defense and a solid ground game—took care of everything. Combined with losses elsewhere in the division, Iowa has quickly established itself as the team to beat in the Big Ten West.
Next for Iowa: at Iowa State, in what could be the biggest Cy-Hawk matchup ever.
Orange Bowl: second seed Georgia (9) vs. third seed Ohio State (10).
The Bulldogs won the biggest game of Week 1, suffocating Clemson in Charlotte, 10–3. They scored zero offensive touchdowns but didn’t need one, with a pick six providing the winning margin as Kirby Smart brings defense back in an offensive era. That said, Georgia will have to manufacture some explosive plays at some point in time if it wants to seriously contend for the national title.
Next for Georgia: vs. UAB, which has a stout defense of its own.
The Buckeyes produced a nation-leading four offensive scrimmage plays of 50-plus yards Thursday night against Minnesota, making clear the weapons at Ryan Day’s disposal. Quarterback C.J. Stroud was erratic in his first career start, and the Ohio State defense still has plenty of work to do. But the talent and playmakers are undeniable.
Next for Ohio State: vs. Oregon, in what should be a big-time game if the Ducks are healthy and ready to perform better than they did against Fresno State.
Also considered: UCLA, Penn State, Texas, Notre Dame, Clemson, UCF.
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