Football

Ohio State firms up College Football Playoff argument

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No. 1 Alabama restored order in the SEC West, looking capable of hanging 100 on LSU in a 55-17 victory.

No. 2 Notre Dame shook off a sluggish start to breeze past Syracuse, 45-21.

No. 3 Clemson awoke from some early doldrums to vanquish Virginia Tech, 45-10.

No. 4 Ohio State endured significant losses from COVID-19 — including three starting offensive linemen — and blew out Michigan State so authoritatively, 52-12, that few could tell the difference.

No. 5 Texas A&M delivered a solid win at Auburn, never an easy place to go for a joyride, by scoring 17 fourth-quarter points in a 31-20 victory.

No. 6 Florida dispatched Tennessee in the expected manner, cruising to a 31-19 win.

Does a weekend without high-end drama portend a closing kick to the College Football Playoff race that lacks tension? A peek ahead shows many scenarios where that could happen.

In the micro, this week leaves us right where we were, where the only reason to turn into ESPN’s Selection Show on Tuesday is to see if anything salacious gets said. There was no compelling evidence to flip No. 4 Ohio State with No. 5 Texas A&M, the only ranking that was really in question last week.

In terms of high-end drama to close this college football season, it appears there’s more of a chance that it’s virus-induced, as we’ve seen with Ohio State the past two weeks, than from on the field. There are, for certain, Armageddon scenarios. And those can’t be discounted amid a pandemic. But there’s also a chance that this field coalesces with little drama.

It’s premature to say that anyone has clinched a CFP spot, but it’s hard to imagine Alabama starting a new streak after reaching the first five and missing last season. Barring something stunning happening in Fayetteville next weekend, Alabama (9-0) would likely find a spot even if Florida pulled the upset in the SEC title game.

Notre Dame (10-0) would also appear to be set, as a loss to Clemson doesn’t feel like enough to knock it out of the top four.

Clemson (9-1) needs to win. Could the Tigers stick around with two losses to Notre Dame? Sure. It is likely? Probably not. Texas A&M fans will be rooting harder against Clemson than they did when the teams played the past two seasons.

Ohio State (5-0) needs to win out and it needs an opponent this week, as Michigan’s outbreak of positive tests puts that storied rivalry game in peril. But comments from Badgers AD Barry Alvarez have indicated a willingness at the AD level to manipulate the rules to allow Ohio State to play for the league title. (They could be in danger of missing the minimum threshold of games, so adding a game is a possibility.)

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, left, rushes against Michigan State’s Antjuan Simmons during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Texas A&M (7-1) has two more data points to make an impression, but they won’t add much value. Ole Miss is a more interesting opponent than a quality one, and Tennessee isn’t interesting or quality.

Florida (8-1) would be a much more interesting case if its defense hadn’t napped the entire game at Texas A&M. They’d be ahead of Ohio State and Clemson and poised for a monster SEC title showdown.

With two weeks of games remaining — and two of the four potential playoff teams bowing out of one of them thanks to the ACC’s opt-outs — could the ending of this season be a bit mundane and predictable?

After a predictable Saturday, it’s shaking out that way.

Larry Johnson’s time to shine

The Ohio State victory put a spotlight on defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who served as the interim coach in Ryan Day’s absence.

Johnson has long been considered the country’s most elite defensive line coach, as he’s tutored eight NFL first-round draft picks and has personally coached more Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and Big Ten defensive players of the year than any other program in the league.

But the connection that Johnson has with his players transcends the numbers. And that became apparent when Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith presented Johnson the game ball on Saturday afternoon after Ohio State’s 52-12 victory at Michigan State.

“Emotional for him, the team and me,” Smith told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night. “Great human being. His connection with the team is special. It is beyond the technical, it’s personal.”

For the past week, as Ohio State’s season and playoff chances hung in the balance with COVID-19 issues on their staff and with players, Johnson has been a calming influence. That led to a drama-free game up in East Lansing, which was impressive enough without numerous key personnel to help Ohio State keep the No. 4 playoff spot.

“So happy for Coach Johnson,” Smith said. “He did a masterful job leading this team during a critical time where these young men had to overcome tremendous adversity. Proud of him and happy for him.”

Going Coastal

The highlight of the day, and one of the most rollicking games of the season, came when No. 18 Coastal Carolina upset No. 13 BYU, 22-17.

The game came together in 48 hours after Liberty had to bail out with COVID-19 issues. The shotgun scheduling marriage produced great theatre, as Coastal Carolina won when freshman safety Mateo Sudipo tackled BYU’s Dax Milne on the 1-yard line as time expired.

That provided the crescendo of a back-and-forth game that Coastal Carolina won because its spread-option offense kept the ball away from Zach Wilson and BYU. Coastal Carolina dominated time of possession – 37:51 to 22:09 – and scored on touchdown drives of 17, 11 and 13 plays.

BYU failed to dominate the trenches like many predicted and self-destructed with key penalties, a bad fourth-down drop and an inability to exploit their size advantage.

In terms of big-picture ramifications, the game eliminates BYU from the conversation about a New Year’s Six Bowl (and the $4 million that would have come with it).

It’s unlikely that Coastal Carolina will jump high enough to be considered for an NY6 Bowl. But with a GameDay appearance and a thrilling victory putting a mega-watt spotlight on the school, they’ve continued to bulldoze themselves into the hearts of football fans.

A lot of chatter ensued after about the ability for teams to leave spots open on their schedule to fill with games like this in the future. While intriguing, that “Bracket Buster for Football” idea remains a bit idealistic. While this season has taught us football scheduling doesn’t need to be planned out 15 years in advance, it’s hard to see the upside for leaders who’d prefer having everything booked – stadiums, travel and season ticket packages – long before the season starts.

Coastal Carolina's Isaiah Stephens, center, celebrates with fans after an NCAA college football game against BYU, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Stephens, center, celebrates with fans after an NCAA college football game against BYU, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Tulsa just keeps winning

In a season filled with surprise teams and endearing stories, Tulsa’s undefeated league record and march to the ACC title game has flown well under the radar.

Tulsa (6-1, 6-0 AAC) has clinched a spot against Cincinnati in the AAC title game in two weeks. Tulsa hosts Cincinnati in a makeup of their regular season game next week. This will mark Tulsa’s first appearance in a conference title game since 2012 when Tulsa beat UCF for the Conference USA title. (Tulsa went 11-3 under Bill Blankenship that year).

Perhaps the most impressive part of the job Philip Montgomery has done with the Golden Hurricane this season is that they’ve discovered an identity as a defensive program. In Montgomery’s 10-3 season in 2016, Tulsa scored more than 40 points 10 times. This year, they’ve done so just once.

“I think that’s probably the most important point of it,” Montgomery said on Saturday night by phone. “Just finding ways to win. We’ve been in a lot of tight ball games, we’ve been down. They’ve stayed focused and locked in and confident in each other.”

In beating Navy 19-6 on Saturday, Tulsa allowed Navy’s devastating rushing attack just 2.4 yards per carry. Jaxon Player had 4.5 tackles for loss. Star linebacker Zaven Collins left the game late with an injury, but Montgomery told Yahoo he’d be fine for next week.

“He’s obviously our bell cow and obviously continues to make plays,” Montgomery said off Collins. “In my opinion, he ought to win a lot of awards.”

Tulsa had large swaths of players miss the preseason because of COVID-19 issues. They’ve dealt with two cancellations – Arkansas State and Houston – and near-constant chaos. “The only thing that’s been normal about our season has been change,” he said with a chuckle.

Change and, of course, winning games. After going 9-27 the last three seasons, that’s the type of new normal Tulsa fans will embrace.

Beware the Buffaloes

Of all the wacky results and unpredictable uprisings of 2020, few can match Colorado being atop the Pac-12. With two of the league’s ranked teams falling this weekend – No. 22 Washington and No. 23 Oregon – the Buffaloes may find themselves ranked after jumping out to a 4-0 start.

No one is going to throw you a parade for beating winless Arizona, but considering that Karl Dorrell got the Colorado job in late February – about two weeks before the pandemic hit – what he’s done has been remarkable. With no spring ball, a lot of Zoom and a quarterback pulled from the defensive backs room, Dorrell is a shoe-in for Pac-12 coach of the year.

Colorado rushed for 407 yards, shut out Arizona in the second half and bulled their way to 8.8 yards per rush. They trailed 13-0 in the first half and didn’t flinch.

“There wasn’t any panic, there wasn’t any concern that we were in trouble or that look that you get on players faces when they seem to lose confidence or something like that,” Dorrell said. “I didn’t sense that at all. There was more problem solving.”

That’s what Dorrell has majored in during his first season in Boulder – problem solving. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the problem of figuring out who the Pac-12’s best team is also has a simple answer.

New Mizzou?

Missouri’s tortured football history is known much more for bitter defeats and elongated stretches of losing. After all, this is the program that gave us the Fifth Down (1990), the Flea Kicker (1997) and 13 straight losing seasons from 1984 to 1996. (Take a bow, Bob Stull, and God rest the soul of the recently departed Woody Widenhofer.)

So what’s been so compelling about the Eliah Drinkwitz’s time thus far at Missouri has been the program’s swagger in moments when soul-crushing doom appeared imminent. When the history was mentioned to Drinkwitz on Saturday night, he said, “Oh yeah, the Fifth Down, all that stuff.”

But so far this season, with the game hanging in the balance in the final minutes, Missouri has authored scintillating victories. “I think it just starts with the belief that you can win,” Drinkwitz said by phone Saturday night. “To have LSU come down to the final play and this one down to the final play. We found a way to win.”

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz walks off the field after an NCAA college football game against South Carolina, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz walks off the field after an NCAA college football game against South Carolina, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Against Arkansas on Saturday, as the Tigers scored 27 fourth-quarter points to erase a 14-point deficit and win, 50-48, on a last-second field goal. That came after Missouri could have clinched the game when linebacker Jamal Brooks let the game-sealing interception through his hands. In a moment that gave many old-guard Missouri fans flashbacks, the two-point conversation attempt ended up being caught by Arkansas’ Mike Woods after Brooks’ whiff.

On the precipice of heartbreak, Missouri’s Connor Bazelak led the Tigers on a seven-play, 60-yard drive in the game’s final 43 seconds that culminated with the game-winning field goal as time expired. Harrison Mevis drilled it from 32 yards out to go five-for-five on the day and improve Missouri to 5-3 on the season.

Bazelak is 6-1 as a starter, including a pair of wins over Arkansas. “He’s going to be a solid SEC starter for a long time,” Drinkwitz said after the game. “He doesn’t get rattled by the situation.”

As memorable as the finish was, Missouri’s Twitter account doubled down on the power of the win by needling Arkansas after the game. “Did Mizzou just have the largest 4th quarter comeback in school history?” And underneath was a GIF of Razorback coach Sam Pittman’s “YEEEESSSSIRRRRR” catchphrase.

“It’s a budding rivalry,” Drinkwitz said. “Based on our Twitter mentions right now, I’d say it’s a budding rivalry.”

Rice, Rice, baby

Few scores on Saturday provided more shock value than 22-point underdog Rice shutting out No. 21 Marshall on the road, 20-0. It was Rice’s first win over a ranked opponent since 1997 and first shutout of a ranked opponent since 1960.

And for Rice, it delivered a signature victory to third-year coach Mike Bloomgren, who brought over from Stanford the concept of “Intellectual Brutality.” In the locker room after the game, Bloomgren’s team presented him the game ball after he complimented the team’s “unwavering belief” that accompanied both this victory and the culture turn he’s led at Rice.

Rice played without its starting quarterback, tailback and best receiver, but won because of a performance Bloomgren called “the essence of intellectual brutality.” He added: “If we worked together and played more physical, we have a chance no matter who is on the other sideline.”

Backup quarterback JoVoni Johnson played error free, as the Owls won despite gaining just 213 total yards. Marshall quarterback Grant Wells, one of the sport’s breakout stars this season, threw five interceptions. “Our defense by taking the ball away five times, they almost made it so we couldn’t lose,” Bloomgren said.

The last time Rice played a Conference USA team of this caliber was 2018, when UAB drilled Rice 42-0. But two years later, it was Rice delivering the blows. “We went out and took the physicality to them,” Bloomgren said. “That was really cool.

“At the end of the day, what this feels like to me is not an arrival, but progress.”

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