The biggest weekend of the 2019 college football season lived up to the hype. The first regular-season battle of No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll in eight years turned out to be one of the best games of the year, and the undercard battle in Minneapolis was almost equally great.
Though the main stories of the day were massive comeback attempts from Alabama and Penn State, it turned out that all the comeback mojo was spent in East Lansing (and nearly Norman, too). Here are some scattered thoughts from a wonderfully entertaining Week 11.
The innovation life cycle
The two most memorable games of the 2011 college football season might as well have been different sports altogether. On Sept. 2, Robert Griffin III and Baylor withstood a spectacular comeback against TCU, going from up 47-23 to down 48-47 before scoring the winning points with a minute left. The Bears and Horned Frogs combined for 1,030 yards and 98 points, and put on a spread offense masterpiece for the world to see.
Two months later, LSU and Alabama — teams with all the blue-chip recruits in the world and extreme defense-first tendencies — played an absolute classic that featured tons of future pros, otherworldly physicality, and almost no points. Final score: 9-6 LSU. Total yards: 534.
This past Saturday, the symbolism was so blatant that it was almost pounding us over the head. With Baylor clinging to an unbeaten record and slight College Football Playoff chances, the Bears visited Fort Worth and found themselves down 9-6, of all scores, late in regulation. They tied the score with a late field goal, and the teams needed three overtime possessions each to cross 600 total yards. Whereas Griffin and TCU’s Casey Pachall combined for 610 yards and a 189.3 passer rating in 2011, Baylor’s Charlie Brewer and TCU’s Max Duggan combined for 335 yards and a 97.3 rating Saturday.
LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, meanwhile: 811 combined yards and a 178.8 passer rating. Burrow threw for 252 yards and three scores as the Tigers burst out to a 20-point halftime lead, and Tagovailoa went for 246 yards and three scores in the second as the Tide almost came all the way back.
The Baylor and TCU defenses, two of the best in the Big 12, were a step ahead of their opposing offenses for most of the afternoon in Fort Worth. The Alabama and LSU defenses, armed with both a track record and the fruits of blue-chip heavy recruiting classes, could gain the upper hand for only a possession or two at a time.
This weekend was the perfect encapsulation, then, of the life cycle of the college football offense.
For any sport that doesn’t put a cap on spending or potential resources, this is how things always work. A small-market baseball team figures out how to better utilize analytics or strategy, and one of its executives (and usually a few star players, too) end up on the Dodgers or Yankees or Red Sox. A German manager finds something particularly creative or effective, and then Bayern Munich either hires him away or takes his star players (or both). And in college football, coaches out in places like Waco or Lubbock or Evanston or Mount Pleasant, Iowa, or Golden, Colorado, reinvent and reconfigure what’s possible offensively, and once it’s proven to work, the big boys adapt, adopt, and take over once more.
Eight years ago, the top five scoring offenses belonged to Houston, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Baylor and Boise State. Now, they belong to Ohio State (average RecruitingNation recruiting class ranking over the last five years: 6.2), Oklahoma (12.0), Alabama (2.2), LSU (8.2) and Clemson (7.4). Building a conservative, defense-first team has become, to a large extent, an underdog tactic.
For fans of entertaining college football, this is a great thing. It is blissful watching former blue-chippers like Tagovailoa, Burrow and the endless supply of skill-position talent at their disposal, playing in systems built to maximize their advantages.
For fans of innovation and oddity, though, it’s an interesting time. While there are always new tweaks and plays to be found, the vast majority of college football operates from pretty similar handbooks — lots of 11 personnel, a solid dose of RPOs (which defenses have begun to adapt to in recent years), slightly more early down passing, fast tempo after moving the chains and between first and second down, slow-to-a-crawl tempo on third down and in the red zone.
This is the College Football Offense of 2019, and we’re waiting to see how the next Hal Mumme or Randy Walker or Bob Stitt go about trying to change the template moving forward.
What do you think Nick Saban lost more sleep over?
Heather Dinich gives her long-term prognosis for Alabama after its loss to LSU, with the Crimson Tide not having the opportunity to bounce back.
That is a hypothetical header, obviously, since Saban doesn’t sleep. Still, despite all of the heroics from Burrow and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (29 combined carries and pass targets, 180 yards, four touchdowns, countless broken tackles, and some emotional hugs on the sideline), you can very quickly boil the Tide’s loss down to two factors: turnovers and an end-of-half scenario so bad that they’ll reference it in coaching seminars for years.
The turnovers are easy enough to explain. LSU outgained Alabama by only 18 yards but forced two turnovers while committing only one. One turnover ended a Bama scoring chance at the LSU 6; another set up a touchdown late in the half. Two plays, and a 14-point swing.
That end-of-half pick was merely part of maybe the most nightmarish three-minute span of Saban’s Alabama career. Behold:
• Alabama’s Raekwon Davis and Christian Barmore sacked Burrow to force a field goal attempt with 4:20 left in the first half. It would boost LSU’s lead to 19-13, but Bama’s win probability, per ESPN Stats & Information data, crept to 50.2%. After a sketchy start, Bama had clawed back to put the game on even terms and would get the ball with a chance to take the lead. Three minutes later, the game was all but over.
• Bama went three-and-out for the second time in the game, however, and punted the ball back to LSU with under three minutes left. The win probability had moved to 59% in LSU’s favor.
• LSU worked the clock and moved the ball downfield. When Edwards-Helaire scored from 1 yard out with 26 seconds left in the half, the Tigers’ win probability moved to 80%.
• Now down 13, with LSU getting the ball to start the second half, Bama had to get aggressive and take a risk. Patrick Queen punished the Tide severely, stepping in front of a Tagovailoa pass and setting LSU up inside the Bama 20 with 11 seconds left. Win probability: 85%.
• Burrow and Edwards-Helaire teamed up for a 13-yard score with three seconds left, and the win probability leapt to 95%. It wouldn’t sink below 73% in the entire second half.
This was a perfect combination of LSU execution and Bama desperation. It was an incredible snowball effect that might have completely redefined the national title race.
A digression: This … THIS … was “unsportsmanlike”
Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk is given an unsportsmanlike penalty for high-fiving fans after scoring a touchdown Saturday night.
That’s Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, having just scored to bring the Sun Devils to within a touchdown of USC — they were down by 21 in the first half — ending up in front of a few ASU fans and giving them the lightest, most half-hearted high-fives imaginable. Fifteen yards. After a kick out of bounds, the Trojans started their next drive at the 50 because of … that.
What are we even doing here? Why are we policing this, or anything even reasonably close to this? Call this College Football Is Amazing Despite Itself example No. 1,304,593.
(And it may not have even been the worst officiating decision in a Pac-12 game this weekend.)
Let’s walk through all the things Illinois did wrong
Indeed, Illinois hogged all of this week’s comeback mojo and didn’t leave any of it for Bama or Penn State. Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini secured bowl eligibility by spotting Michigan State a 28-3 lead (hmm … 28-3, you say?), then finishing the game on a 34-6 run.
Actually, we cannot with a straight face call that a “run” of any sort. A saunter, maybe. A mosey. This was the least-comebackish comeback you will ever witness, and I still have no idea how the Illini pulled it off. They seemingly did everything wrong and won anyway.
• Their first TD was almost an accident. Down 25 in the closing seconds of the first half, Illinois’ Sydney Brown picked off a pass at the Illinois 19 with 32 seconds left. With nine seconds left, quarterback Brandon Peters nearly got the ball knocked out of his hands, killed too much time to run another play … and then hit Josh Imatorbhebhe open in the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown as the first half expired.
• Down 21 after State opened the second half with a field goal, the Illini proceeded to go three-and-out, six-and-out, and three-and-out. Luckily, Michigan State, having scored more in the first half than in its three previous games combined, was too exhausted to move the ball and punted back each time.
• The Illinois offense finally got going, scoring on an 83-yard rollout catch-and-run to Imatorbhebhe on the first play of the fourth quarter, then driving 53 yards in five plays to make it 31-24. And on State’s next drive, it got an opportunity most teams attempting a huge comeback do not: a bad snap got away from MSU QB Brian Lewerke, and Illinois recovered at the MSU 8 with a chance to tie. And Peters threw an end zone interception.
• State then drove the ball into Illinois territory with a chance to put the game away. Unfortunately, Lewerke then completed a wide open pass to Brown, who was still wearing an Illinois jersey. He took it 76 yards to the house to make it 31-30 with 4:53 left … and then James McCourt missed the extra point attempt.
• State responded with a 46-yard Matt Coghlin field goal to make it 34-30 with 3:17 left. Illinois needed a touchdown to win but within five plays faced a fourth-and-17 after Peters took a bad sack. Ballgame, right? Of course not. Peters lobbed the ball to Imatorbhebhe, and the Georgia-via-USC product posted up and came down with it for a gain of 37.
He touched the ball only four times, but he made the most of every one.
— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) November 10, 2019
• Illinois made it to the MSU 1 with under a minute left, and the Spartans had to start using their timeouts to buy some time for a comeback of their own. Only, Peters muffed the first-down snap and lost three yards, then ran for no gain and threw incomplete to Imatorbhebhe. On fourth-and-goal, with MSU out of timeouts, Illinois called the worst and least efficient play in the playbook: a fade to the corner of the end zone. It fell incomplete because that’s what fades do, but MSU was flagged for defensive pass interference (virtually the only possible positive outcome).
• Given new life, Illinois proceeded to lose three yards on a run and then take … its … sweet … time, electing to substitute as the clocked ticked under 15 seconds. That allowed State to substitute as well, and by the time the next play was over, there were only five seconds left. Fortunately for Illinois, that play was a touchdown. Daniel Barker lost his man in the back of the end zone, and a rolling Peters hit him between the numbers.
Bad playcalling, relaxed time management, special-teams errors, red zone turnovers … none of this added up to an Illinois comeback, and Illinois came back all the same. Again, college football is amazing. Despite itself.
Adopt an aspiring bowl team
With Illinois now at six wins, if you’re looking to root for another team with chances to end a bowl drought, here are some candidates:
Charlotte (5-5, 84% chance of reaching six wins, per SP+). Will Healy’s 49ers considered losing to UTEP on Saturday but prevailed and get a bye week before taking on Marshall (41% win probability) and Old Dominion (72%). This would be their first bowl ever if they make it.
Ball State (4-5, 65%). The Cardinals haven’t bowled since 2013 and need to win two of three against Central Michigan (56% win probability), Kent State (59%), and Miami (Ohio) (66%) to pull it off. Win all three, and they could win their division, too. Lots to play for here.
Coastal Carolina (4-5, 37%). Following a blowout loss to surging Louisiana, the Chanticleers need a 2-1 finish to have a shot at their first bowl. After a likely loss at Arkansas State (24% win probability), they’ll probably have to sweep UL Monroe (43%) and Texas State (57%).
Nebraska (4-5, 23%). Hey, two years is technically a drought, right? To reach their first bowl since 2016, the Huskers will have to win at Maryland in Week 13 (56% probability) and pull a home upset of either Wisconsin in Week 12 (16%) or Iowa in Week 14 (26%).
UL Monroe (4-5, 22%). Competitive losses to Florida State and Arkansas State have rendered their first-bowl-since-2012 hopes minimal. They’ll need to win two of three against Georgia Southern on the road (32%), Coastal Carolina at home (57%), and rival Louisiana on the road (7%).
San Jose State (4-6, 20%). Speaking of competitive … the Spartans nearly beat both Boise State and Hawaii in the past two weeks but went 0-2 instead. Now they’ve got to sweep UNLV (61%) and Fresno State (33%) to get to .500.
UCLA (4-5, 19%). OK, yes, UCLA bowled in 2017. But that feels like about 12 years ago, so we’re counting the Bruins here too. After starting the Chip Kelly era with 14 losses in 18 games, they’ve won three in a row. Now they need to pair a home win over Cal in Week 14 (65%) with a road upset of either Utah in Week 12 (9%) or USC in Week 13 (21%). Long odds, to be sure.
P.J. Fleck: really good head coach
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck crowd-surfs in the locker room after his team’s win over Penn State.
Minnesota just had itself a hell of a week. First, it signed head coach P.J. Fleck to a contract extension just as the coaching carousel tried to swirl his name into rumors. Then, the Gophers went out and scored their biggest win in years (decades? ages?).
Granted, if a blue-blood school really wants to come after Fleck, an eight-figure buyout might not be enough to dissuade it. But assuming for now that the vultures will not circle and that he will remain Minnesota’s coach moving forward, let’s acknowledge just how perfect this marriage is.
At both Western Michigan and Minnesota, Fleck energetically burned the two-deep to the ground and installed his own recruits as quickly as possible, resulting in some early growing pains. His WMU tenure began with 14 losses in 17 games, then finished with 20 wins in 23. At Minnesota, he inherited a team coming off of its first nine-win season in 14 years but started out with an 8-11 record. With a ridiculously young two-deep, however, the Gophers won four of their last six last year, and they’ve needed only nine games to pull off another nine-win season this fall.
If Fleck were to at some point leave for a blue blood, things could get weird. He wants to build HIS depth chart with HIS culture and HIS weird mantras. He makes a given program Fleck University, and … well … blue bloods tend to have both a deep history and a set of boosters who like that history quite a bit. Fleck building his own culture from scratch could be met with resistance.
That’s all the better for Minnesota, though. The Gophers program has a rich history, too, but most of its brightest moments happened in the 1930s and early 1940s. (Bernie Bierman: five-time national title winner and maybe the most underrated coach in college football history.) This team hasn’t finished higher than 18th in the AP poll in 57 years. It was ripe for a top-to-bottom cultural overhaul, and Fleck has provided that.
Fleck is also proving he can build a winning brand of football — that he can Row the Boat in the land of 10,000 lakes — without dominating his conference in recruiting the way he did at WMU. He’s building burly lines, running the ball as much as humanly possible, and winning just enough recruiting battles to assure high-level depth in the receiving corps and secondary. He’s containing the game as mentor Jim Tressel did, and he has built a team capable of sniffing out mistakes and taking full advantage of them. Nothing about this is unsustainable.
While a CFP trip isn’t all that likely, the Gophers now have, per SP+, a 75% chance of finishing with 11 or more wins (not including bowls). And that’s with a depth chart that is awfully sophomore-heavy. This run might be just beginning.