Forde-Yard Dash: Winners and Losers of College Football’s Unprecedented September

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Oklahoma ownership papers sold separately in Manhattan): 

MORE DASH: Nebraska Needs a Hug | Reshaped SEC | Top Former Players Coaching

FIRST QUARTER: WHO WON SEPTEMBER, AND WHO LOST IT?

A season that hasn’t even started in some parts of the country is a month old in others—that’s 2020 for you. But even though we’ve only just begun, and have 11 weeks of regular-season games ahead, we can still take stock of September and see where the sport stands.

Generally speaking, it’s been difficult getting up and running. But the sport did get up and run.

The game postponement/cancelation rate is 21 percent, and many teams that have played were short-handed due to positive tests and contact tracing. That rate may decline as rapid testing increases at many programs in the weeks ahead, but thus far the impact on both scheduling and team continuity has been significant.

As for the impact on the actual football? The September data says that playing through a pandemic with abnormal preparation favors the offense over the defense. Scoring is at 30.48 points per team per game, which is higher than the record of 30.0 set in 2016. Yards per game is 416.54, which is less than a yard off the record that also was set in ’16. Yards per play (5.85), yards per pass attempt (7.7), completion percentage (.617) and fewest punts per game per team (4.4) all on are record pace. (Playing well into December may have a literal chilling effect on offensive proficiency. We’ll see.)

Has the play been sloppy? Yes, it has been sloppy. But not outrageously so. Penalties per team per game are up slightly (6.4) over usual (in the 6.1 range). There have been 26 blocked kicks. Teams are averaging 1.47 turnovers each. All things considered, the level of play has not very often sunk to slapstick. (There are notable exceptions. If you saw Tulsa-Oklahoma State, it’s possible that your eyes are still bleeding.)

But the games have delivered increasing amounts of drama and excitement as the weeks have gone along. The lack of real stadium atmosphere is depressing, but the actual competition has delivered. As college football always does, despite all the flaws.

So, who won September and who lost it? Let’s do a quick Dash list:

Winner: Southeastern Conference (1). The best conference may have had the best season plan, waiting weeks longer than the ACC and Big 12 to kick off and avoiding some of the COVID-19 issues that affected those leagues. When the SEC got going Saturday, all seven scheduled games were played. And there was the usual smorgasbord of outcomes: a big upset in Baton Rouge; powerful performances by Alabama and Florida; Gus Malzahn dressed like Pat Dye for a game against Kentucky that left both schools fuming at the refs; the usual agonizing losses for Vanderbilt and South Carolina; and Georgia delving deep into the quarterback depth chart to avoid a disastrous opener. Good to have the big dogs back.

Loser: Big 12 Conference (2). The decision to add that “extra data point” by playing a non-conference game was a failure, leading to three upsets and a couple of other wobbly performances that diluted the league’s strength of schedule. Then conference kingpin Oklahoma blew a three-touchdown lead against Kansas State, which had previously lost to Arkansas State, and the Big 12 shame spiral accelerated. When Texas went down 15 to Texas Tech with three minutes remaining, the league’s College Football Playoff hopes were as downtrodden as the Longhorns defense. Then they rallied to win in overtime, thanks in no small part to a couple of Tech special-teams decisions, and the Big 12 lives to fight another day—with one arm tied behind its back. It’s not good to be just a couple games into the season and already needing help from other Power 5 conferences falling apart.

Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach following a 44-34 win against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium.

Winner: Mississippi State (3). Historically, the Bulldogs have been a lower-echelon SEC program. They rose to new heights under Dan Mullen—but after losing him to Florida the school decided it still wanted to dream big in football. When Joe Moorhead delivered a 14-12 record that would have been more than acceptable in earlier times, State pushed him out and tried to do better. That led to the hiring of Mike Leach, an iconoclast who has proven he can outperform historic expectations in tough jobs (Texas Tech, Washington State). Despite the difficulties getting a new program up and running amid a pandemic, Leach delivered the kind of debut that State fans dreamed of, upsetting reigning national champion LSU. The Dash is awaiting word on whether Mississippi State set an SEC record for fewest rushing yards in a win, chalking up a meager nine. The Bulldogs more than made up for it through the air, passing for an SEC record 623 yards.

Loser: Tennessee (4). There was another SEC school on the verge of hiring Leach, back in late 2017. But the Volunteers decided to fire athletic director John Currie before he could make the hire, replacing him with Phil Fulmer and getting a Traditional SEC Ball Coach in Jeremy Pruitt. Maybe Pruitt will work out (he’s 14-12 so far), but he certainly hasn’t delivered a win on par with what Leach did right out of the gate at Mississippi State. Pruitt’s highlight to date is beating Indiana by a point in the Gator Bowl.

Winners: the Big Ten and Pac-12 (5). They’re going to have seasons after all, and if they go without a major disruption those seasons will end with a conference championship and the top teams in both leagues at least theoretically in contention for playoff bids. With rapid daily testing, the conferences have a chance. And a shorter season could lead to greater chances of being undefeated—which, historically, has counted for a lot with the CFP selection committee. The leagues that are increasing their number of conference games (10 in the SEC, nine in the ACC), also increase their chances of everyone losing at least once. We’ll see how that all shakes out, but going 9-0 or 8-0 may play better than going 10-1.

Losers: Memphis and Arkansas State (6). The two played against each other on Sept. 5, with the Tigers beating the Red Wolves 37-24. Memphis hasn’t played since then, postponing/canceling two games. Arkansas State went and scored a big victory at Kansas State, but hasn’t been able to play the last two games. Both schools have been far from transparent about the COVID-19 issues within their programs, angering some of their conference members in the AAC (Memphis) and Sun Belt (Arkansas State). Logical question: was their game against each other part of the problem? The Tigers will go 28 days between games before playing SMU Saturday. Arkansas State will go 21 days before playing Coastal Carolina.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

This week’s playoff picks, as always predicated on today being Selection Sunday:

Sugar Bowl: top seed Clemson (7) vs. fourth seed Mississippi State (8).

After cruising to a 2-0 start, the Tigers had an off week. The schedule gets more interesting in the next two weeks, with Virginia (1-0) and Miami (3-0) coming to Death Valley. The Cavaliers shouldn’t count on getting seven turnovers against Clemson the way they did Saturday in their opener against Duke; Trevor Lawrence still hasn’t thrown an interception since last Oct. 19, a string of 10 straight games. Next up for Clemson: Virginia Saturday.

The Bulldogs crash the playoff after their resounding upset of reigning champion LSU. While Mississippi State’s epic passing performance has understandably gotten most of the attention from that game, don’t overlook the effort from defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s unit: State held LSU to just 80 rushing yards and grabbed a pair of interceptions. Next up for Mississippi State: Arkansas, whose SEC losing streak reached 20 games, comes to Starkville Saturday.

Rose Bowl: second seed Alabama (9) vs. third seed Miami (10).

The Crimson Tide looked like they always look in a season opener: ready to play and capable of dominance. Nick Saban moved to 14-0 in openers at Alabama by squashing Missouri 38-19, in a game that was less competitive than the score might indicate. Mac Jones looks the part of an Alabama starting quarterback, and he shouldn’t have to play superhero given the skill-position weapons surrounding him. The Tide defense could be better than the last two editions, which will also help take some pressure off Jones. Next up for Alabama: Texas A&M comes to Tuscaloosa Saturday.

The Hurricanes have looked better with each passing week, going from a functional victory over UAB to an explosive win at Louisville to a complete beatdown of Florida State. The Seminoles were embarrassingly bad, but that doesn’t mean Miami isn’t good. The ‘Canes can run, they can throw, they can get after the opposing quarterback (six sacks Saturday) and they can take the ball away (six forced turnovers the last two games; keep that chain handy). Next up for Miami: a week off, then the showdown at Clemson Oct. 10.

Dropped out: Notre Dame, UCF.

Also considered: Notre Dame, UCF, Florida. 

MORE DASH: Nebraska Needs a Hug | Reshaped SEC | Top Former Players Coaching

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