Before we get to the Winners and Losers from CFB Week 3, here are three takeaways from my traditional Saturday of binge-watching games:
1. The Missouri football program isn’t just bad; it’s an absolute embarrassment.
Sure, we’ve seen worse times than this. The “Norman Conquest” defeat at Oklahoma — final score: 77-0 in 1986 — is an especially brutal memory. But here, in more modern times, we’ve watched Mizzou sink back to the bottom. And that’s damned shame, considering all of the years of hard work that Gary Pinkel put in to rebuild Mizzou into a respected and successful program — one that reached No. 1 in the polls in 2007, one that captured the SEC East in 2013 and ‘14.
I thought it would last. But Pinkel’s house has collapsed, and second-year coach Barry Odom seems highly incapable of rebuilding it. Less than a week after Odom pulled weak move by scapegoating and firing defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross, Mizzou came out for Saturday’s home game and basically laid down in a humiliating 35-3 submission.
The Tigers didn’t quit; how can you quit something that you never started? This team did not compete. This team did not care. This team did not show up for their embattled coach, and that’s when you know it’s all but over. The lack of effort and emotion from the Mizzou players was incriminating — and devastating to Odom. And when fans evacuate the stadium at halftime — rushing out of there, en masse — it’s not a healthy sign for MU’s financial bottom line of the Coach’s future.
2. I’m an SEC honk, but the best team in the nation right now is … Clemson.
After all, Dabo Swinney’s team is the defending national champion, having won a thriller over SEC ruler Alabama in last season’s title game. The Tigers have opened 2017 with impressive wins over two ranked teams, Auburn and Louisville. This could change, of course, but I’d presently give Clemson the edge over Alabama for two reasons. First, Clemson’s defense is stronger than ‘Bama’s early on. Second, new Clemson QB Kelly Bryant looks terrific, and he appears to be more accurate passer than Alabama’s Jalen Hurts.
Over the last three seasons Swinney is 11-1 in games vs. teams ranked no worse than 19th in the polls. And Saturday night’s 47-21 takedown of 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at Louisville was Clemson’s 11th consecutive road win, a program record.
We could very well be in for Alabama vs. Clemson III for the national championship.
3. Among SEC head coaches Nick Saban stands alone, but Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen is the second-best coach in the conference.
The SEC no longer is the land of the coaching giants. The conference lost considerable sideline clout with the departures of Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Les Miles, James Franklin, Mark Richt, Gary Pinkel and Bobby Petrino. And Hugh Freeze had Ole Miss rolling there for a while.
But Mullen does an excellent job, especially when we factor in the degree of difficulty. It’s easier for Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee to win the recruiting battles for the top prospects. Starkville, Miss. is a fine place, but not a destination spot for highly coveted recruits. But Mullen continues to discover overlooked recruiting gems — hello, Dak Prescott — and can coach ‘em up. Saturday night, Mississippi pummeled No. 11 LSU 37-7, and the coaching mismatch was glaringly obvious to anyone who saw Mullen’s Bulldogs disassemble an undisciplined, unorganized, uninspired LSU side coached by the ordinary Ed Orgeron.
Mullen’s speciality is finding and developing quarterbacks; that’s how he made his name as an assistant, working his way up the coaching ladder, and benefiting from a longtime association with Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
The list of QB notables developed by Mullen includes Alex Smith (Utah), Tim Tebow (Florida), Dak Prescott (Mississippi State) and Bowling Green’s Josh Brown, who was drafted by Baltimore in 2004. And Mullen has found another big-time player in with his current quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald. The only other program that recruited Fitzgerald was Middle Tennessee State, so that tells you something about Mullen’s eye for spotting QB talent. And Prescott was hardly the target of a national recruiting frenzy. Mullen has had five quarterbacks drafted by NFL teams.
Before the largely unknown Prescott emerged as a star, Mullen won 29 games in four years at Mississippi State with QB mix that included Tyson Lee, Chris Relf and Tyler Russell. (Yeah, I’m with you… I don’t know who they are, either.)
During the eight-season stretch before Mullen arrived in 2009, Mississippi State had a winning percentage of .308 and secured one bowl invitation. Since Mullen took over, the Bulldogs have a .604 winning percentage, competed in seven bowl games in his first eight seasons, and were No. 1 in the polls for a time in 2014. A moderate rebuild was necessary when Prescott headed to the NFL (and Dallas) in 2016. But after an understandably slow start in ’16 Mississippi State is 7-2 in the last nine games. The whupping of LSU was its Miss State’s fifth in a row.
The SEC West is down this season, so Mississippi State could be Alabama’s top challenger in the division. We’ll know a lot more after the next two games, with Mississippi State going on the road to play Georgia and Auburn. But Mullen is an outstanding coach who maximizes the talent on his roster, and that’s all you can ask a coach to do. And he gets superb results from his quarterbacks. Special coaches do that.
THE WINNERS …
— Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald wiped out LSU’s heralded defense by passing for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and rushing for 88 yards and two TDs. Fitzgerald sure looks like the best QB in the SEC in 2017.
— Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant. In the 47-21 win at Louisville the largely untested Bryant outplayed Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman winner. It can’t be easy to replace DeShaun Watson, who led Clemson to the national championship. And no one is saying Bryant is making everyone forget about Watson’s championship-caliber talent and leadership. But Bryant is making the best of it. He may be a helluva lot better than anticipated. Saturday he attacked Louisville for 23 completions in 32 attempts for 316 yards passing. He threw for a touchdown and rushed for two.
— Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. This season Brohm took over a broken program that had gone 35-75 between the 2008 and 2016 seasons including a horrendous 9-39 record from 2013 through ‘16. It’s taken Brohm only three games to revitalize Purdue football, and bring it back to life. When Purdue clobbered Mizzou, the contrast in the quality of the leadership at the top of each program couldn’t be more telling.
— The Oklahoma State offense: The Cowboys invaded Pittsburgh and put up 49 points in the first half before downshifting in a 59-21 trouncing. In less than three quarters, OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph fired away for 497 yards and five touchdowns. Four Cowboys receivers topped 100 yards. In their first three games, all wins, the Cowboys have averaged 54 points, 607 yards and six touchdowns per game. Rudolph has averaged 407 yards passing per game, with a 72.3 percent completion rate, 11 touchdowns and one interception. The annual Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State rivalry game, aka “Bedlam,” could go a long way in determining the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner. Rudolph and OU quarterback Baker Mayfield are rising contenders.
–– You’re a winner if you stayed up to watch USC outlast Texas to win 27-24 in double overtime. It was fabulously entertaining. USC quarterback Sam Darnold is fearless under pressure.
— Vanderbilt and coach Derek Mason. Saturday’s 14-7 win over No. 18 Kansas State was Vandy’s first victory over a ranked non-conference opponent since 1946. The Commodores, off to a 3-0 start, have won seven of their last 10 games going back to the 2016 season… a season that ended with Vandy in a bowl game for the first time since 2013. Mason’s sturdy defense has been scratched for only 13 points allowed, total, in the first three games.
— Florida coach Jim McElwain. The improbable rally for a 26-20 victory over visiting No. 23 Tennessee wasn’t artistry, and the Gators offense continues to lumber along with a disappointing dullness. Things looked bleak after Florida coughed up a 10-point lead in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. And when quarterback Feleipe Franks rescued Florida with a Hail Mary touchdown for the winning score, it was Florida’s first offensive TD of the season. Hey, at least Franks made it count. It was a big one. The highly criticized McElwain needed this, his Gators needed this and the state of Florida needed this as the citizens continue to deal with the destruction of hurricane Irma.
— Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller. He’s the best Memphis receiver since a fellow named Isaac Bruce starred there in the 1990s. As the top weapon for quarterback Riley Ferguson in a wild 48-45 win over visiting UCLA, Miller made like Isaac Bruce by making nine catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Going back to his strong finish in 2016, this is what Miller has done in his last nine games: 74 receptions, 1,204 yards, and 14 touchdowns.
THE LOSERS …
— Nebraska coach Mike Reilly. He’s 16-13 after replacing the fired hot-head Bo Pelini, and that won’t cut it at Nebraska. Riley is off to a 1-2 start in his third year in Lincoln, and has lost four of his last five games dating back to late last season. And on Saturday Nebraska lost a home game to Northern Illinois, 21-17. Not long ago, losing to N. Illinois wouldn’t have been embarrassing, but the Huskies were 6-11 in their previous 17 games before flooring the Cornhuskers. This was a bad loss. Arguably the worst loss by a team in Week Three.
— LSU coach Ed Orgeron. After the thrashing at Mississippi State, the Tiger faithful already are grumbling about Coach O, the Louisiana native who was a comfort hire after LSU was waved off by more prominent coaching candidates. Orgeron promised to enliven a boring offense that cost Les Miles his job despite his a .770 winning percentage and national championship at LSU. The hiring of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada was supposed to revitalize a dormant passing game, but the Tigers managed only 137 yards passing at Starkville, with just one play from scrimmage covering more than 19 yards. And LSU players can’t control themselves on the field; Saturday the Tigers were slapped with nine more penalties, running their total to 30 flags in three games.
— Tennessee coach Butch Jones. Volunteer fans are screeching again after witnessing the undefended 63-yard strike that gave Florida the sudden win. Inexplicably, Tennessee had only five defensive backs (instead of six) on the field to protect against the deep ball. Combine that with Tennessee’s incomprehensibly stupid offensive play calls in critical short-yardage situations with a chance to crash into the end zone … there will be no peace in Knoxville for Jones this season.
— South Carolina. With a chance to jump out to a 3-0 start on the season, and the home crowd pumped up and anticipating success, the Gamecocks lost to Kentucky for the fourth consecutive season. This time it was 23-13, and the SC offense couldn’t get going. But the worst loss of the night for South Carolina was the fractured left fibula suffered by Deebo Samuel, the exceptional wide receiver and return man. He’ll be out indefinitely, so the Gamecocks will have to endure the absence of a dangerous playmaker who had scored 12 touchdowns in his last six games.
–– UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. The loss at Memphis was typical of what we’ve come to expect from the Bruins. Mora, in his sixth season, had a positive start at UCLA. The Bruins had nine wins in his first year (2012) followed by consecutive 10-win seasons. But over his last 17 games Mora’s record is 6-11, and the Bruins defense has been smoked for an average of 31 points per game over that time. Isn’t Mora supposed to be a defensive guy?
— The Auburn offense. Yes. Again. Sure, Guz Malzahn’s team got a 24-10 win on Saturday following a clunker performance on offense in a loss at Clemson. But Auburn’s opponent was an FCS squad, Mercer, that resumed fielding a football program in 2013 … after a 72-year hiatus. In the second game of the year, Mercer gave up 28 points to Wooford, a fellow member of the Southern Conference A week later, Auburn scored only 24 vs. Wooford. In 12 possessions against the Woodford defense Auburn either punted, turned it over, or otherwise failed to score on eight of the 12. If Auburn can’t pile up the yards and points on Mizzou’s pitiful defense on Saturday in CoMo, Malzahn may have a posse assembling and waiting for him at Toomer’s Corner.
Thanks for reading …