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CFB Week 3: Heroes, Villains, Big Ten Angst, and Mizzou’s Vanishing Defense

Opening Drive

1. A win is a win is a win … but c’mon Missouri. The late drive and emergency rescue that led to a last-play field goal and 40-37 victory at Purdue didn’t have to be so difficult. The Tigers (3-0) gave up a 27-10 lead late in the first half (halftime score: 27-27) and a 37-27 advantage in the fourth quarter. The MU defense was ransacked for 614 total yards — including 572 passing yards by Purdue QB David Blough. In fact, Blough set a Big Ten single-game record with 588 total yards.

This, the same Purdue offense that had scored 19 points in a 20-19 homefield loss to Eastern Michigan in Week Two. There were plusses for Mizzou: Drew Lock passed for 375 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a score, (He missed open receivers though.) The Mizzou ground game plowed the Boilermakers for 246 yards rushing and 5.6 yards per carry on 44 attempts by their running backs. And the Mizzou defense did a solid job of stopping the run.

But the Missouri passing defense? Just horrendous. This does not bode well for SEC play and the next three games against opposing quarterbacks Jake Fromm (Georgia), Jake Bentley (South Carolina) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama.) Fromm leads FBS with an 80.1% completion percentage, and Georgia is averaging 272 yards rushing per game. Bentley is among the SEC’s best quarterbacks. And Alabama is not of this world, having become the first team in SEC history to open with three consecutive games of 50+ points. The Crimson Tide can score in a hurry, having  zoomed off on a  34-0 scoring spree vs. Louisville, zipping off a 40-0 run against Arkansas State, and scoring 62 unanswered points in Saturday’s romp at Ole Miss.

Coach Barry Odom needs to fix or patch his defense.

2. I like Lovie Smith. But he’s getting paid a lot of money to raise the fallen Illinois football program, and I shouldn’t feel sorry for him. He has a job to do and should be judged accordingly. So why do I feel bad for Lovie? Because the Illini had a swell opportunity with Saturday’s game against an established and exciting South Florida team at Soldier Field in Chicago.

A chance to beat a very good team. A chance to put on a show and enhance the marketing and recruiting efforts in Chicago. A chance to get something going. But Lovie’s team capitulated after taking a 19-7 lead into the fourth quarter, losing 25-19. And before an announced attendance of 21,725. Early into his third season at Illinois, Coach Smith’s record is 7-20.

Because I like Lovie, I’ll end on a positive note. This was a helluva lot better than the Illini’s 47-23 loss at South Florida last season. And Illinois will only improve with a roster that features 77 underclassmen including running back Mike Epstein, who amassed 169 total yards (and a touchdown) in Saturday’s defeat. And the Illini nearly pulled off the upset with a true freshman QB (M.J. Rivers) who is playing because of an injury to starter AJ Bush. But for the most part, this game was lost because Illinois scored only three points in the second half. Speaking of Saturday’s downer, Smith said: “We just didn’t finish it the way we will in the future.”

3. Texas Tech is a crazy football team. Just wild as a bunch of jackrabbits. The high-flying Red Raiders have terrified defenses with an average of 55.6 points (!) in their first three games. But the Tech defense — facing FBS opponents Ole Miss and Houston — has been bombed for an average of 48 points. Saturday, Texas Tech took apart a Houston defense led by the great Ed Oliver for 63 points. The Red Raiders have a true freshman quarterback in Alan Bowman and he did this to Houston’s defense in the 63-49 win: 43 completions in 59 passing attempts, 605 yards through the air, and five touchdown throws. Statistically, the performance was the best by a true freshman QB in Big 12 history.

4. USC fans are turning on coach Clay Helton after the Trojans were run out of Austin in a 37-14 loss to an overrated, mediocre Texas team.  Helton is 1-2 after USC dropped two consecutive games by double digits for the first time since 2000. USC fans often are delusional about the program’s prestige, which leads to absurdly high expectations and demands. USC has so many shared “National Championships” that you have to go back to 1972 to see an outright national title. The Trojans probably deserve credit for 2004, no matter what the inconsistent lawmen of the NCAA say.

5. One of the best coaching jobs in the nation is being performed by Seth Littrell at North Texas. I like to point out up-and-coming coaches who are building programs in a hurry, and Littrell definitely qualifies. In 2016, Littrell took over the Mean Green after their 1-11 season in 2015; it was the team’s 10th losing season in 11 years. After improving to a 5-8 record in 2016, North Texas went 7-1 in Conference USA (9-5 overall) and played in the New Orleans Bowl.  After a 3-0 start this year, Littrell is 12-5 since the beginning of 2017 and the Mean Green looks like the best team in C-USA. Littrell’s offense is averaging 49.3 points in its first three games including impressive blowout road wins at SMU (46-23) and Arkansas (44-17.)

Littrell was a team captain and running back for the 2000 Oklahoma Sooners’ national championship team. As an assistant coach, Littrell apprenticed under several notable head coaches including Mark Mangino (Kansas), Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Kevin Wilson(Indiana), and Larry Fedora (North Carolina.) In 2015, Littrell was the assistant head coach for North Carolina’s 11-3 season and first place finish in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

North Texas is 3-0 for the first time since 1989, and Saturday’s victory was the program’s first over an SEC team since 1975.

Now let’s take a look at the Heroes & Villains for College Football’s Week Three …

HEROES

* Alabama: The Crimson Tide are insanely great, even by ‘Bama standards. It isn’t that Nick Saban’s team is 3-0 after easy conquests of Louisville, Arkansas State and Mississippi. Many good teams could have won those three games. But after annihilating Mississippi 62-7 on Saturday night in Oxford, Alabama is averaging 56.6 points and 545 yards per game while outscoring its three opponents 170-28. This stat from The Athletic: ‘Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is 13-for-13 passing on third downs this season, and the 13 passes have gone for 298 yards and six touchdowns.

* I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to watch Oklahoma play, but Kyler Murray is an exceptionally talented quarterback –and a great show. Saturday, Murray stayed on the early short list for Heisman consideration by completing 21 of 29 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns in a 10-point win over Iowa State. In leading the Sooners to a 3-0 start, Murray has gone airborne for 863 passing yards, rolled for 169 rushing yards, and accounted for 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. This note from ESPN’s David Hale: Murray has 1,032 total yards and 10 touchdowns through three games; Baker Mayfield had 1,033 total yards and 10 touchdowns through his first three games in 2017 while on the way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

* LSU and quarterback Joe Burrow. The graduate transfer from Ohio State doesn’t have gaudy passing stats, and even now he continues to be downgraded the college football media-industrial complex as a mere “game manager.” There’s some truth to that, but let’s open our minds here, OK?  Burrow isn’t some robotic check-down specialist. Saturday, he marched the Tigers down the field at Auburn in an intensely hostile environment to set up the winning field goal as time expired.

LSU won 22-21, and Burrow was money when it mattered.  LSU wouldn’t have won on the Plains without Burrow stepping up in his first SEC road start. With a chance to win the game, he converted first downs with sharp passes on third-and-7 and fourth-and-7.

With Burrow directing drives and connecting with LSU’s tall, fleet receivers, the Tigers came back to win by scoring on three of its final five drives of the game.  Burrow had no turnovers. Burrow was just as effective in pressure situations in season-opening rout of Miami (Fla.) For years now, LSU has been huffing and puffing and stalling for one primary reason: The Tigers didn’t have a quarterback with the combination of a big brain, and big stones. Forget the stats; Burrow has the big brain and the big stones.

* Keep a watchful eye on Boston College, a sleeper in the ACC. The Eagles have scored 40+ points in four of their last six conference games.  And BC has exceeded 500 yards offense in six of its past 10 game including last week’s 41-34 triumph at at Wake Forest. According to The Athletic, the Eagles are averaging 39.4 points over their last 10 games — a big increase from a scoring average of 18.8 points in the previous 10 games.

* Kansas. What the hell is happening over there in Lawrence? Yeah, yeah, Rutgers stinks. The Knights are an embarrassment to the Big Ten, and an embarrassment to James Gandolfini’s alma mater. But still: KU 55, Rutgers 14? That’s two in a row for the Jayhawks, who hadn’t posted consecutive victories over FBS opponents since 2009 when Mangino was still the head coach. And Saturday’s 55 points were the most generated by KU against FBS competition since a 76-39 pounding of Nebraska in 2007.

* Group of Five gets paid, wins games. It was supposed to be business as usual for Power Five conference teams: shell out between $1 million and $1.3 million for an extra home game against a non-power conference to pay for an easy “W” … Well, the business took an unusual turn on Saturday when Group of Five teams Troy, Akron and North Texas went into the den of Power Five teams, collected the cash, and left town with upset victories.

We already told you about North Texas wiping out the Razorbacks in  Fayetteville.

Akron rallied from from 18 points down to ruin Northwestern’s Saturday night (39-34 final score.) It was the Zips’ first win against a current Big Ten team since 1894 — except the Big Ten technically didn’t exist in 1894, and Akron was known as  “Buchtel College” back then.

Earlier in the day, Troy coach Neal Brown knocked off a Power Five team for the second straight year, following up on last year’s win over LSU at Death Valley with a 24-19 victory at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers averaged only 3.9 yards per rushing attempt and are 0-2  for the first time since 1957.

(Coach Neal Brown also had my favorite quote of the day; offering encouragement to the Nebraska program and first-year head coach Scott Frost. “I want to say to the Nebraska fans, you’re going to be fine,” he said. “Those guys over there, like Scott Frost, and those guys he has on defense, that staff in particular, they’re going to get it done here.” Isn’t that nice of the Troy coach to console Husker Nation?)

Group of Five resident Fresno State went to UCLA and breezed to a 38-14 win over the Bruins.

And another “Fiver,” San Diego State, stayed home and gave Herm Edwards his first loss at Arizona State, 28-21.

* Syracuse coach Dino Babers. Granted, the Florida State football program is in a state of collapse, but don’t hold that against Babers and his team.  After a 30-7 burial of Florida State, Syracuse (3-0) needs only three more wins over the remainder of the season to gain bowl eligibility. And Babers has come through with an upset victory in each of his three seasons: Virginia Tech in 2016; Clemson in 2017; and now the Seminoles, who were a 3-point favorite going into the Carrier Dome.

VILLAINS

* It was a horrible day for the Big Ten: Ohio State did the conference proud by winning 40-28 at TCU… but otherwise, what a catastrophe. We’ve already mentioned many of these outcomes, but let’s review:

  • Wisconsin was upset at home by BYU.
  • Nebraska was upset at home by Troy.
  • Northwestern blew a lead at home and got upset by Akron.
  • Rutgers lost by 41 points at Kansas.
  • Maryland was disassembled at home (35-14) by Temple.
  • Illinois yielded 18 fourth-quarter points, let an upset win slip away, and lost by six to South Florida.
  • Purdue had a chance to hang an woeful loss on visiting Missouri but let the Tigers zoom down the field for the winning field goal in a 40-37 setback. The Boilermakers are 0-3.

In the first three weekends of the season Big Ten teams have lost 12 non-conference games to Eastern Michigan, KU, Troy, Akron, Temple, Brigham Young, Duke, Colorado, Arizona State, Mizzou, South Florida and Notre Dame.

* The biggest loser was Wisconsin. The Badgers now face a difficult itinerary for reaching the four-team national playoff. The Big Ten West is so lousy –even more than last year — that wins over division rivals won’t add a lot of value to Wisconsin’s resume. And the Badgers have road games at Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. BYU’s win at Wisconsin was the first nonconference home loss by the Badgers since losing to UNLV on Sept. 13, 2003. The home nonconference winning streak ended at 41 games.

* Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham: Playing a huge game at home against rival LSU, Stidham was intercepted twice, played with shaky confidence, and couldn’t lead his team to a score during the final 25 minutes and 38 seconds of game clock.

* Builders and architects: First-year coaches that came into their new gigs with name-brand recognition and successful backgrounds are off to humbling starts in 2018. Scott Frost (Nebraska), Chip Kelly (UCLA) Willie Taggart (Florida State) and Chad Morris (Arkansas) and Kevin Sumlin (Arizona) are a combined 3-11, and the three victories were over Samord (by Florida State), Eastern Illinois (by Arkansas) and Southern Utah (by Arizona.) If it’s ano consolation, fellows, Nick Saban was 7-6 in his first season at Alabama and lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe.  And in his first 34 games as Clemson’s head coach, Dabo Swinney went 19-15.

Side note, from the Tallahassee Democrat: “Eight different GoFundMe accounts have been created to pay for  Taggart’s buyout if he were to be fired this season.” Good grief, calm down. Taggart has coached three games at FSU. Speaking of which …

* Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois: He isn’t a villain. He’s more of a victim. In 2016, Francois was a freshman, coached by Jimbo Fisher, and he played very well as the successor to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. But after shattering a knee against Alabama in the 2017 opener, Francois missed the rest of the season. When he returned this year, Fisher had moved to Texas A&M,  Taggart was the new head coach, and the talent around him had deteriorated. In his last three games against FBS opponents, Francois has thrown one touchdown and been intercepted six times. Francois was so disgusted by his offensive line’s lazy pass protection in Saturday’s 23-point loss at Syracuse, he refused the linemen’s attempts to help him up off the ground after a sack or vicious hit.

* Boise State. Saturday’s 44-21 loss at Oklahoma State was a big hit to BSU’s chances of landing the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl lineup. The Broncos need to run the table and hope that the top three teams in the American Athletic Conference each will lose at least two games.

* Oregon State: This is a sorry, nondescript program. Saturday’s defeat to Nevada was all you need to know: The Beavers fell behind by 23, fought back to get within two points (37-35) and missed the winning 34-yard field goal attempt as time expired. Much worse is Oregeon State’s turnover gadget. You’ve know about Miami’s turnover chain, and Louisville’s turnover world championship belt. This fad took an unfortunate turn when Florida State went with turnover … Backpacks? And now this: Oregon State has the turnover chainsaw. Not a turnover chain … but a damn chainsaw. STOP, before someone gets hurt.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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