For all of the twists and turns and surprises and upsets the college football season invariably delivers, it’s easy to still assume the final chapters have been prewritten, and in the end, the same heroes will emerge victorious.
Just think what life has been like for Tennessee fans who, through 15 years of futility against Alabama, have seen their SEC brethren win 11 national titles, including six by these Crimson Tide, while the only bit of hardware they’ve scored for themselves was a lone championship of life.
Think of what it must’ve felt like to see Lane Kiffin’s surreal exit and Derek Dooley’s tenure and Butch Jones’ sideline trash can and Jeremy Pruitt’s bags of cash (and also those three days when Greg Schiano was going to be the coach before Twitter nixed the deal) and know that the man on the other side of the field on Saturday had never lost on the Third Saturday of October.
Think of what it must be like to slip into a pair of orange overalls and chug cheap beer on a flotilla and sing “Rocky Top” for the 200th time, only to stare down a scoreboard that shows another blowout loss at the hands of the mighty Tide.
Who, faced with such horror, could still have hope?
And yet, on the 16th try, the story had a new ending.
To see that sea of orange pour onto the field after Tennessee’s 52-49 win on Saturday, razing the goal post and hoisting it in the air in a moment of mass catharsis was part celebration and part exorcism, a shedding of the demons that have made this program one of the most consistent punchlines in college football for the past 16 years.
On Saturday, the joke was on Alabama.
When Tennessee jumped out to a 28-10 lead, it was an emphatic show of strength, serving notice that Alabama was hardly invincible, and Nick Saban wanted to speak to the manager.
Nick Saban was livid on the sideline after Alabama muffed a punt in the second quarter.
When Alabama roared back in the second half and took a 35-34 lead following a controversial pass interference call, there would’ve been every reason for Tennessee to assume this would be yet another kick in the face, and yet Jalin Hyatt refused to roll over. Instead, he hauled in second-half scores of 60, 78 and 13 yards in a remarkable show of resilience.
When Alabama’s late field-goal try sailed wide right, what remained among the nearly 102,000 in attendance was not resignation but hope.
Bryce Young returned from injury and was dazzling, throwing 455 yards, but when Hendon Hooker delivered a dagger to Bru McCoy with 2 seconds left on the clock, the game-winning field goal was little more than deus ex machina. The tide had turned, and the Tide wouldn’t survive.
Tennessee’s win, in some ways, offered a spark for so many upstarts. As the Volunteers marched toward that game-winning kick, TCU was completing a frenetic comeback to beat Oklahoma State in overtime. Syracuse moved to 6-0 for the first time since the Reagan administration with an emphatic win over NC State and now has a showdown with undefeated Clemson up next. Ole Miss and UCLA are undefeated, too, and either would represent a stark departure from the college football status quo if they can keep winning through the next seven weeks, too.
None of this is to suggest that the kings have been dethroned. Clemson flexed its defensive muscle against Florida State. Georgia demolished Vanderbilt. Michigan and Ohio State again appear to be the class of the Big Ten. Even Alabama remains the clear favorite in the SEC West, and the best Tennessee might hope for is a rematch in Atlanta in December.
But for one Saturday at least — the third Saturday in October, as it were — it felt like there could be a new conquering hero at the end of this story.
And hey, don’t worry too much, Alabama. That coveted championship of life is still up for grabs.
Michigan’s old-school domination
In the Big Ten, Ohio State is a unicorn. It’s a hard-living, fast-driving, take-no-prisoners action flick. The Buckeyes are strobe lights and glow sticks. The rest of the league is a Tupperware party.
Except maybe Michigan.
The Wolverines thumped No. 10 Penn State 41-17 on Saturday, and that makes it hard to lump them into the rest of the Big Ten pack. They’re something different — even if we’re still not quite sure exactly how different. That Michigan was the better team Saturday is unquestionable. That Penn State managed 17 points was a near miracle. The Nittany Lions held the ball for just 18:04, and roughly 17:50 of that time was spent in third-and-long.
Instead, it was the Michigan ground game that offered true fireworks. Donovan Edwards ran for 173. Blake Corum ran for 166. Both had runs of 60-plus yards. It has been a winning formula for the Wolverines to run their monster backs into a brick wall again and again and know that, ultimately, the wall will give up.
And yet, cast against Ohio State’s seemingly unstoppable offense and suddenly rejuvenated D, it’s fair to ask if Michigan’s formula is ultimately good enough to win at the highest level.
Ohio State is dynamic and flashy. Michigan feels a bit like its coach’s preferred pants — not quite formal, not quite casual, completely functional and so bland it’s oddly interesting.
Last year, that was enough. Ohio State’s flash was impressive when it worked and a train wreck when it didn’t. Good or bad, it was interesting.
Michigan could be dull and predictable, but it rarely disappeared in big moments, and that was enough to punch a playoff ticket. And even after that, it was still clear that improvement was needed, and so Jim Harbaugh went through the motions of a QB battle perfectly designed to achieve the desired result. And now with JJ McCarthy, Michigan is again good and reliable and… mostly using the same formula it did a year ago.
To look down the Big Ten standings at teams like Penn State, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin or Purdue is to sift through a freezer full of vanilla ice cream. To look at Ohio State is to see a bottomless tub of 31 flavors with sprinkles and hot fudge. And what is Michigan? Not vanilla, clearly. But perhaps French vanilla?
Saturday’s dominance of Penn State was a statement. In the country’s second-richest (and, therefore, second-best) conference, Michigan stands out from the crowd. It is a team that made the College Football Playoff just a year ago, then seemed almost an afterthought all offseason, returned to the field with a plethora of wins against cupcakes that all added up to… what? Even after Saturday, are we ready to include Michigan on the same tier as the Buckeyes?
Perhaps the problem is us. Perhaps we’re fools, constantly dazzled by the shiniest object, and Ohio State polishes its chrome with the best of them. Perhaps we simply cannot appreciate the physical, run-it-down-your-throat-then-keep-running approach of the Wolverines.
After all, the Big Ten is about to cash a $1-billion-a-year TV check in exchange for long field goal drives (15-, 19-, 15- and 14-play efforts in Illinois’ 26-14 win Saturday) and Brian Ferentz ruining nepotism for a generation of spoiled rich kids. Certainly there’s an audience, and perhaps we simply lack the refined palette.
Maybe the takeaway from Michigan’s dominance of Penn State isn’t to suggest that the Wolverines are fun or ready for a showdown with that team down south to decide who makes the playoff. Perhaps all that needs to be said is that Michigan is 7-0, and we’re all going to have to keep watching.
We’re seven weeks into the season — the official halfway point — and that means it’s time to take stock of some of the storylines that have defined the 2022 campaign. So, put on your tuxedo t-shirt, pour yourself a tall Miller High Life (the champagne of beers) and settle in for our very formal presentation of the midseason’s best.
Best second-string QB: TCU’s Max Duggan
Could Duggan go from opening the season on the bench to earning an invite to the Heisman ceremony at season’s end? After losing the starting QB job to Chandler Morris, Duggan has emerged as one of the country’s most prolific players, with 16 passing TDs, four more on the ground and just one interception on the season. Saturday, Duggan helped TCU erase a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit against Oklahoma State to win 43-40 in double overtime.
Best renaming of a stadium: JMA Wireless Dome
After years of frigid performances at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse changed the name of its home stadium, and in doing so, changed its fortunes. The Orange thumped NC State 24-9 at the now-JMA Wireless Dome on Saturday, moving to 6-0 for the first time since 1987. Coincidentally, JMA Wireless is also the only company that will provide service for Jim Boeheim’s brick Motorola mobile he first bought in 1987 and still uses. Time is a flat circle.
Best party guest: Sam Pittman
Pittman lectured us on the need to bring top-shelf beverages to parties earlier this year, but BYU is prohibited by the school’s code of conduct from serving up any of Pittman’s favorites. KJ Jefferson returned to action to throw for 367 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-35 win over the Cougars. On the upside, Pittman left a case of O’Douls in visiting locker room because he’s just that good a party guest.
Worst preseason prediction: Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea
Lea said the Commodores would eventually become the best team in America.
Vandy lost to Georgia on Saturday 55-0, as Stetson Bennett IV threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns. There’s still time for Clark to be proven correct, we suppose, but by the time it happens, there’s a decent chance Stetson Bennet V is ready to take over the Bulldogs’ offense.
Best new trend: Firing your coach
Colorado nixed Karl Dorrell on Oct. 2, took a week off, and returned to pick up win No. 1 on Saturday (the last FBS team to get its first win of the year) with a 20-13 overtime victory over Cal. Five teams have axed their coaches so far this season. Before the firings, those teams were a combined 1-15 vs. FBS foes. Since firing their coaches, they’re a far more respectable 7-5. Then look back at teams that parted ways with coaches before October concluded last year, and nearly every one is in a better place, including USC and TCU among the nation’s best teams. So, the evidence is clear. Write a very big check, fire your coach, win a bunch of games. Someone tell Auburn.
Most disappointing twist: Sun Belt Cinderellas
The season began with Appalachian State in the role of America’s favorite Cinderella, but James Madison stole that crown with a Week 4 shocker in Boone. JMU then ran its record to 5-0 and garnered a top-25 ranking, but the Cinderella run came to an end Saturday. Georgia Southern scored with 1:01 to play to take a 45-38 lead then picked off JMU QB Todd Centeio to secure the win. The loss marked both the first of the season for the Dukes, as well as James Madison’s most embarrassing moment in Georgia since the Treaty of Ghent.
Best feel-good story: DJ Uiagalelei’s re-emergence
Perhaps no player in the country took more heat last year than Uiagalelei, who entered the season as a Heisman contender and an NIL darling, starring in a national ad campaign, and finished it with nine TD passes and 10 interceptions. Despite the struggles, Dabo Swinney stuck by his QB this offseason, and Uiagalelei has rewarded that trust by leading the Tigers to a 7-0 start, while accounting for 21 touchdowns on the season, including four in the Tigers’ 34-28 win over Florida State on Saturday. And the truly good thing about all this is that there’s no chance Swinney will rub it in anyone’s face that he was right and everyone else was wrong.
Best team in Mississippi: Jackson State
Ole Miss is 7-0 after beating Auburn 48-34 on Saturday. Still, giving up 34 points to Auburn is actually the same as a loss, so they’re scratched from winning this honor. Meanwhile, Mike Leach’s Mississippi State was demolished by Chris Rodriguez (196 yards and two TDs) and Kentucky, so the Bulldogs are out, too. That leaves Coach Prime’s squad, which may not be SWAC enough for some people’s standards, but after a 48-8 win over Bethune-Cookman in which Shedeur Sanders threw for five TDs, the Tigers get the prize basket, which includes a six-pack of Barq’s root beer and a complementary interview for the soon-to-be-vacant Auburn head-coaching job.
No D for USC
There was a simple formula for Lincoln Riley during his years at Oklahoma: Take a great QB, mix him with some terrific skill position guys, then take away any semblance of a competent defense, and — voila! — you’ve got yourself a team capable of losing by 20 in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
Well, the formula might be slightly more complicated at USC.
Yes, Riley has his superstar QB. Caleb Williams was exceptional. And yes, he’s got a ton of talent on offense, from Travis Dye to Mario Williams to Jordan Addison. And yes, he’s still decided it’s defense optional. And against Utah on Saturday, that turned out to be a big problem.
USC jumped out to a 14-0 lead, didn’t trail until the Utes converted a 2-point try with 48 seconds remaining, and yet, it wasn’t enough.
Utah’s final six drives included five touchdowns and a fumble at the USC 3-yard line. The four drives in the second half included 43 plays, 18 minutes, 32 seconds of possession time, six third-down conversions and two fourth-down conversions and a seemingly endless string of self-inflicted wounds by the Trojans’ defense.
Credit certainly goes to Cameron Rising, who came through again and again, including the touchdown run and two-point try to win the game. He threw for 415 yards, ran for 60 and accounted for five touchdowns in the win, while receiver Dalton Kincaid caught 16 balls for 234 yards.
The bad news for USC is that the loss puts them at the bottom of the Pac-12’s top tier, behind UCLA, Oregon and, now, Utah. The good news is, if USC can just expedite its realignment plans, this defense is still plenty good enough to win the Big Ten West.
1. Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker
Late in 2020, Hooker was benched at Virginia Tech and essentially shown the door. Since then, he’s blossomed into one of the most prolific QBs in the country, throwing for 385 yards and five touchdowns on Saturday, and is now deserving of his spot atop the Heisman rankings. And what’s happened to Virginia Tech, you ask? Well, rumor has it the program folded, all records of its existence have been erased by the government, and Frank Beamer and Bud Foster now travel the country in a van solving mysteries.
2. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud
Ohio State was off this week. Stroud still spent his Saturday making crank calls to Mel Tucker, just to continue to assert his dominance.
3. Alabama QB Bryce Young
It’s almost impossible to overstate just how good Young is, and how much he means to Alabama. But even in a game in which he threw for 455 yards and led the Tide back from down 18, he wasn’t the most impressive QB on the field.
4. USC QB Caleb Williams
The Trojans lost at Utah, but it’s hard to blame Williams. He threw for 381, ran for 57 more, and had five TD passes on the game. USC’s defense, on the other hand, couldn’t get off the field in the second half. Reminder to Lincoln Riley: You need to spend NIL money to get transfers on *both* sides of the ball.
5. UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson
UCLA was off Saturday, so Chip Kelly spent the day critiquing the technique of a guy twirling a sign outside a cash-for-gold business in West Hollywood.
Others receiving votes: Max Duggan, Blake Corum and whoever survives film study with Nick Saban on Sunday
Sooners bounce back
Brent Venables finally got a Big 12 win Saturday. It probably felt a bit like getting your dinner free because you finished a 96-ounce steak. Yeah, it’s a win, but there’s bound to be some vomit soon afterward.
With Dillon Gabriel back in the saddle at QB, the Oklahoma offense was exceptional, racking up 701 yards of offense — the Sooners’ most in a Big 12 game since 2018. That’s the good news.
The bad news for Venables, the defensive mastermind, is Oklahoma surrendered 42 points to Kansas, the fourth straight game the Sooners have allowed 40 or more.
This season has served as something like a “Twilight Zone” episode, where Venables rubbed the lamp of some diabolical genie. After a decade leading Clemson’s staunch defense, he finally landed his dream job, returning to Oklahoma as head coach. The cost? His defense will make Jason Bean look like Joe Burrow.
But hey, a win is a win, and Oklahoma now has one in conference play, and no matter what happened last week, at least Sooners fans can still remind Texas that they actually beat Kansas.
Under-the-radar play of the day
Coastal Carolina entered Week 7 as one of just two remaining undefeated teams outside the Power 5. Unfortunately, no one told the Chanticleers’ defense.
Grayson McCall threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns in the loss, but it was not nearly enough.
Old Dominion running back Blake Watson carried 18 times for 256 yards and three touchdowns, including scoring runs of 25, 58 and 67 yards.
On the 67-yard run that put ODU up 42-21, Watson hits a crowd of Chanticleers defenders, who each stumble and flail like a guy trying to make his way to the bar at Ocean Annie’s at 2 a.m.
Blake Watson crosses goal line for 67-yard touchdown
The most college football thing to happen Saturday
A quarterback who looks like he played base for Foreigner in the early 1980s threw a touchdown pass to a receiver who looks like he played rhythm guitar for .38 Special on that same tour, then the receiver, Jordan Whittington, celebrated with a really big cow — as one does.
Jordan Whittington scores the Texas touchdown and celebrates with Bevo the mascot.
Big bets and bad beats
Iowa State had its share of chances to knock off No. 22 Texas on Saturday, with QB Hunter Dekkers turning the ball over once in the end zone and, on the Cyclones’ final drive, fumbling deep into Texas territory. In the end, Iowa State lost 24-21, but for bettors who had the Cyclones +15.5, it was of little concern. Matt Campbell’s run of success as a touchdown (or more) underdog in Big 12 play continues to be a near lock. Iowa State has now covered in 15 of its last 16 games when a dog of seven points or more in conference play.
With their 24-9 win over NC State, Syracuse is 6-0, bowl eligible and, with a preseason win total of five, have officially hit the over at the season’s halfway point. Syracuse joins UConn (2.5), Kansas (2.5), Vanderbilt (2.5) and Duke (3) as teams to have already eclipsed preseason predictions.
It wasn’t just Knoxville where Tennessee fans were celebrating. One BetMGM bettor laid down a cool $100,000 on the Volunteers to win outright at +240. That return will buy a really nice victory cigar.