David M. Hale
Years from now, your children will tell stories of the day Alabama was tied with The Citadel at halftime.
Deep within the Amazon, there are tribes that have never had human contact that, nevertheless, took shelter amid fears the world was ending because Alabama allowed 130 yards and two touchdowns to a running back from The Citadel.
Theoretical physicists spent much of Saturday on a conference call, with the only possible explanation for the events in Tuscaloosa being that we’re all part of an artificial universe created by some superintelligent machine, and The Citadel’s 10 first-half points represented an obvious glitch in the matrix.
Sure, the end result was a 50-17 Alabama win, another dominant performance on the scoreboard en route to another week atop the rankings. But for 30 glorious, strange, miraculous minutes, this was a real game, and The Citadel gave Alabama all it could handle.
How to explain it? Chalk it up to Sleepwalk Saturday.
Sure, the rest of the country called it Cupcake Saturday, as some of the best teams in the country took on a host of nobodies. But if you weren’t all that interested in the matchups, neither, it appeared, were those heavy favorites.
Truth be told, the 10-10 halftime score must’ve been some sort of Nick Saban fever dream. His halftime talk to his team might’ve made Richard Pryor blush, might’ve melted the faces of his players like the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Whatever he said, it worked.
The same was true in Clemson, where the Tigers led Duke 14-6 and looked totally out of sync in the first half. Dabo Swinney is not quite as likely to require bleeping, but the Tigers woke up at halftime and cruised to an easy win too.
Michigan? Not quite so much. The Wolverines did find their groove, but they never quite pulled away from Indiana. It wasn’t exactly the dominant performance Michigan could’ve used on a day when Notre Dame looked markedly better.
Michigan’s Week 13 foe, Ohio State, was even worse. The Buckeyes needed a failed two-point try by Maryland to keep their playoff hopes alive, but after a blowout loss to Purdue and narrow escapes against Nebraska and Maryland — all teams below .500 — it’s fair to wonder if the Buckeyes really belong in the conversation. The defense is a mess, and it’s hard to envision how Ohio State would slow down the likes of Alabama or Clemson in a playoff matchup.
At Oklahoma, the same is true. The Sooners couldn’t keep Kansas down, which is as ugly a sentence as you can write about a playoff contender. Only Rutgers has allowed more yards to the Jayhawks this season. If a team is mentioned in the same breath as Rutgers, the playoff committee should take notice.
Of course, the Sooners still managed to win, which is more than West Virginia can say. The Mountaineers led by 10 with less than 5 minutes to play but couldn’t put away Oklahoma State. It was a stunning end for Dana Holgorsen’s team, which will have a chance to kill the Big 12’s playoff hopes against Oklahoma next week.
All of which brings us to the most interesting team of Week 12: UCF.
While the other top teams were sleepwalking, UCF completely frustrated No. 24 Cincinnati, winning its 23rd straight game and forcing the question to be asked yet again. Why not UCF?
The critics point to the defense because UCF gave up some points against Memphis and Temple. But this unit sure looks better than the defenses at Ohio State or Oklahoma.
The critics also will talk about those close calls, from an ugly first half against Memphis to the lackluster second half last week against Navy. But why does UCF get punished for the occasional sleepwalk when Saturday proved it can happen to anyone?
And then, of course, there’s the schedule. No, UCF hasn’t played a brutal schedule, but the Knights now have wins over Pitt (7-4), Memphis (7-4), Temple (7-4) and Cincinnati (9-2). If they beat USF next week, that will be five wins over teams that finish 7-5 or better. That’s as many as Notre Dame has and better than that of Michigan (3), Oklahoma (1) or Ohio State (1).
So yeah, it’s crazy that Alabama had a bad half. It’s crazy that Ohio State nearly fell to Maryland. It’s crazy that Oklahoma State pulled off an epic comeback.
Crazy things happen, and it sure would be fun to see if UCF could create a little more craziness in the playoff.
Nebraska gets its first lead of the game as Barret Pickering nails a 47-yard field goal.
Second thoughts on first-year coaches
A month ago, there was a GoFundMe to pay off Willie Taggart. Scott Frost was presiding over the longest losing streak in Nebraska history. Chip Kelly looked like he was still coaching the 49ers. It was a bad time to be a high-profile first-year coach.
By Saturday, however, those narratives have shifted quite a bit.
Taggart got win No. 5 at Florida State with a stunning come-from-behind effort against Boston College. Frost’s Cornhuskers survived a frigid day against Michigan State’s stout defense to come away with their fourth win in five games. And Kelly toppled rival USC for his third win of the season.
It’s almost as if all those September hot takes might’ve been a bit premature.
Through Week 6, Taggart, Frost and Kelly were a combined 3-13 (with the three wins coming against Samford, Northern Illinois and Louisville, all by FSU). Since then, they’re a combined 9-8, including three wins over bowl-eligible opponents.
Of course, no one is confusing 2018 with a good season at Florida State, Nebraska or UCLA, but each team has shown some signs of progress, which makes for a lot more room for optimism when it’s time to turn the page to 2019.
Add in a solid season from Herm Edwards at Arizona State and Dan Mullen at Florida, plus a solid second half from Kevin Sumlin at Arizona, and this class that looked dead on arrival has actually had some highlights.
What’s that? We didn’t mention Arkansas? No. No we didn’t.
Cupcake Power Rankings
It was Cupcake Saturday, the day in which the SEC goes on autopilot in advance of rivalry contests in Week 13. With that in mind, here are our favorite cupcakes.
1. Drake’s Coffee Cakes: Good enough for Jerry to bribe Newman with them on “Seinfeld.” The UAB of cupcakes.
2. Tastykake cream-filled chocolate cupcake: Can be a little dry, but still a solid cupcake. The MTSU of this group.
3. Hostess Ding Dongs: Halfway through, you’re thinking you’re enjoying it, but in the end, it wasn’t that great. It’s the cupcake version of The Citadel.
4. Entenmann’s golden cupcakes with sprinkles: The icing is a bit too sweet, but the sprinkles add enough texture to keep them interesting. The UMass of cupcakes.
5. Publix red, yellow and blue cupcakes: You’re gonna tell yourself there’s a difference between them, but there’s not. It’s just food coloring. Sort of like Chattanooga, Liberty and Idaho.
6. Rice cakes: This isn’t technically a cupcake, but we needed a joke for Rice.
We waved goodbye to Bobby Petrino after last week’s games, and we’re likely to see a few more coaches on the outs soon. So, whose seat is getting warm?
Clay Helton, USC
Heat level: Inferno
The Trojans have lost four of their past five, including a brutal rivalry defeat to UCLA on Saturday. No, this isn’t the most talented USC team, but Trojans fans never loved the Helton hire to begin with, and Saturday’s ugly loss offers an obvious out. At least they played in Pasadena, so no one could ditch Helton at the airport.
Chris Ash, Rutgers
Heat level: The “popcorn” setting on your microwave
You would think it’d be hotter, but this is Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights actually have kept things close in three of their past four. But like the popcorn setting, Rutgers might end up getting burned by waiting.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina
Heat level: Few dashes of Tabasco
Fedora’s Tar Heels are likely headed to a second straight three-win season; but UNC has at least been relatively competitive, the Heels handled business against Western Carolina on Saturday and Fedora’s buyout should translate to one more year to get things fixed.
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
Heat level: Simmering nicely
The hot seat was brought to a full boil last week, when reports were MacIntyre was out. Turned out, that was a bit premature, but with another loss — the sixth straight for the Buffs — on Saturday, the result might be inevitable.
Lovie Smith, Illinois
Heat level: Spoonful of Tabasco
Yes, this was a rebuilding project for Smith, but the current status of the rebuild is a 63-0 home loss to Iowa. It’s the worst defeat in Illinois history, so maybe the building isn’t going well. It’s also the third time this year Illinois has allowed 63 — something no Power 5 program outside of Texas Tech has done in the past decade.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama: We didn’t expect Tagovailoa to have a chance to pad his numbers much against The Citadel, but he ended up playing three full quarters. He also threw for 340 yards and added another four touchdowns to his résumé.
2. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma: Would the Sooners even be a .500 team without Murray? His case to move ahead of Tagovailoa is real, and another five-touchdown performance Saturday when his defense did next to nothing only helped the cause.
3. Gardner Minshew, Washington State: Ho-hum, just 311 yards and five touchdown throws for Minshew. Oh, that was just the first half? Well.
4. Will Grier, West Virginia: He threw for 364 yards and accounted for three touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a stunning loss to Oklahoma State. The outcome likely ends any real hopes for Grier winning the award, but a New York City invite should still happen.
5. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State: The Buckeyes’ defense is woeful, but that shouldn’t take away from how good Haskins has been. He threw for 405 yards and accounted for six touchdowns in Ohio State’s overtime win.
If Virginia Tech is going to extend the longest officially recognized bowl streak in college football, the Hokies will need to top Virginia next week and find a 12th game to schedule to make up for the lost date against ECU — and win that one too. The Hokies fell to Miami on Saturday, which all but ended their bowl hopes yet ensured the Hurricanes would play in a postseason game.
Also officially bowl eligible as of Week 12: South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Louisiana, BYU and Toledo.
Game of inches
The officiating crew for Utah State-Colorado State got the call right, but that group still might not be welcome back in Fort Collins any time soon.
Colorado State appeared to have won the game, upsetting No. 23 Utah State with a dramatic Hail Mary catch by Preston Williams. The scoreboard lit up. The fans and the team celebrated. And the official threw a flag.
Turns out, Williams stepped out — just barely — on his route down the sideline before hauling in the touchdown grab in the end zone. That’s against the rules, so the play was overturned.
It was a brutal way to lose what Rams head coach Mike Bobo called “the first time” his team played strong football all season.
Manny Miles, the son of Les Miles, throws his first collegiate touchdown pass and it’s a Hail Mary to end the 1st half.
Good day in the Miles house
Les Miles figures to be in Kansas in the near future, if reports that he’s closing in on a deal to be the Jayhawks’ next coach prove true. On Saturday, however, he was in Chapel Hill to see his son, Manny Miles, throw his first career touchdown pass.
Miles, a senior at North Carolina, had thrown just one career pass previously, but on the final play of the first half against Western Carolina on Saturday, he came in to toss a Hail Mary, which was corralled by tight end Jake Bargas.
A new job for dad, a career highlight for son. The grass never tasted so sweet.
Going for two … hundred
After an eight-carry, 17-yard performance against Michigan State on Nov. 3, Maryland tailback Anthony McFarland had a season’s total of 514 yards on the ground. In the two games since, he has rushed for 508 more.
McFarland was dominant against Ohio State, rushing for 298 yards and two touchdowns in the one-point overtime loss. That performance comes on the heels of a 210-yard outing last week against Indiana.
That makes McFarland the first Power 5 tailback to rush for 200 yards in back-to-back games since Jonathan Taylor did it for Wisconsin last season. More astonishingly, however, he is the first player to run for 200 in consecutive games and lose both since Indiana’s Tevin Coleman in 2014.
Seminoles QB Deondre Francois sends one deep to WR Tamorrion Terry who hauls it in for a 74-yard touchdown.
Move over, Greg Reid
Florida State hasn’t finished with a losing record since 1976, but the Seminoles were on the brink of ensuring the streak ended Saturday. They trailed BC by five with less than 2 minutes to play and 74 yards separating them from the end zone. It looked a bit like the 2009 campaign, when a 48-yard punt return by Greg Reid kept the bowl streak alive. But this one came with even more drama, as Deondre Francois delivered a bomb to Tamorrion Terry, who caught the pass in stride and dashed into the end zone with 1:49 remaining, preserving the streak for at least one more week. At 5-6, FSU will need to upset rival Florida in the finale to keep the bowl streak going.
Apples over oranges
As Frank Sinatra sang about New York City, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Well, Syracuse might want to stick to central New York then because, whew boy, it was a rough week in the Big Apple. The No. 15 basketball team went to Madison Square Garden and got schooled by UConn and Oregon on back-to-back days, while the football team needed the saddest field goal of the season to keep from being shut out by Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium. On the upside, they all got to visit their favorite NYC pizza place — the Sbarro in Times Square.
“Utah, get me two!”
All season, Oklahoma State has shown the face of actor Gary Busey on its JumboTron to distract the opposition. This week, the Cowboys invited Busey to campus to talk to the team, then honored him during a timeout in Saturday’s game. They might want to invite him back every week. Busey’s presence must’ve sparked something, as the Cowboys came back from a 17-point halftime deficit to topple the No. 9 Mountaineers. Sure, Will Grier and Taylor Cornelius both threw for more than 300 yards in the game, but Busey can attest that neither lives up to the legend of Johnny Utah.
Pitt goes big to clinch Coastal
How do you properly celebrate an ACC Coastal Division championship? If you’re Pitt, you do it by throwing a touchdown pass to an offensive lineman, of course. The Panthers capped a division-clinching win over Wake Forest by having QB Kenny Pickett toss a backward pass to tackle Stefano Millin, who rumbled 12 yards into the end zone for the score. Now, if Pitt and Clemson don’t end up trading 300-pounder touchdowns in the ACC championship game, then neither team deserves a trophy.
Nothing fake about Carl
Bowling Green fired coach Mike Jinks on Oct. 14, with the team mired in another miserable season, then tabbed Carl Pelini to fill in. At that time, the Falcons had just one win — versus FCS Eastern Kentucky — and had beaten just two FBS teams since the start of 2017. But no one keeps a Pelini brother down for long. Bowling Green won its second straight MAC game, toppling Akron on Saturday, and we assume Falcons fans are thumbing through a thesaurus looking for a clever fake Carl Pelini Twitter handle.
Underrated play of the day: Referee throwing elbows
In the final minute of the first half, West Virginia’s Kennedy McKoy broke a run right up the middle of the field. He had plenty of green grass, but he didn’t count on the physicality of the umpire, who delivered an elbow to bring McCoy down after an 11-yard gain. There was no flag for targeting.
Underrated game of the day: St. John’s beats Martin Luther 84-6
In the first round of the Division III playoffs, St. John’s hung 42 on Martin Luther — in the first quarter! Quarterback Jackson Erdmann threw for six touchdowns — to six different receivers. The 78-point margin was the largest in Division III playoff history, which broke the previous mark of 73. That total also was held by St. John’s, which beat Coe 75-2 in 1991. (Note: Dino Babers would’ve applauded the safety in that 1991 game.)