Ten takeaways from Almost Saturday, a day when a number of seismic upsets were close to happening but ultimately didn’t:
1) Penn State’s heart-stopping, 21-19 victory on the last play at Iowa was the game of the year to date, and it could have long-lasting implications in the College Football Playoff and Big Ten races. The Nittany Lions’ 80-yard drive in the final 96 seconds will go down as one of the greatest in the school’s gilded history.
Quarterback Trace McSorley had an uneven night until it absolutely, positively had to happen. On the final drive he completed seven of 11 passes and had a 12-yard scramble, guiding the Nittany Lions in the midst of an Iowa City madhouse. The winning play was a McSorley strike to Juwan Johnson on a post route to the back of the end zone – where another Penn State wide receiver was in the same vicinity. That certainly didn’t seem to be by design, but hey, sometimes you need a little luck.
Until the final play, it looked like Iowa would reprise its massive home upset of Michigan from last year. Then McSorley fired his last bullet, and Johnson grabbed it for the first touchdown of his college career.
The defending Big Ten champions certainly didn’t have it easy in their first league game, but they’re 4-0 and all lofty goals remain in place. By the barest of margins.
2) Saquon Barkley’s Heisman Hurdle. On a day when the leading quarterback candidates for the Heisman Trophy didn’t help themselves, the best running back in the nation did plenty to boost his stock – most spectacularly the hurdle over an Iowa tackler on a third-down reception that kept alive a fourth-quarter drive.
Remember, the hurdle highlight went a long way for Lamar Jackson last year. And this one came at a much more crucial time in a closer game.
Barkley was incredible against the tenacious Hawkeyes, churning out a school-record 358 all-purpose yards. He’d been fed a modest number of carries in three easy Penn State wins, just 38 for the season, plus 11 grabs. When the Nittany Lions needed to lean on him in a tense battle, Barkley was ready to take on the workload – 40 touches from scrimmage – and produce in a heroic manner.
With Mason Rudolph turnover-prone in a home loss to TCU, Sam Darnold throwing his seventh interception and Baker Mayfield pretty pedestrian by his standards in a shaky Oklahoma win over Baylor, the door was open for someone else to assume the Heisman pole position. Barkley just did.
3) Florida State’s star-crossed season is on the brink of ruin. The Seminoles lost their starting quarterback to injury in a week one loss to Alabama. Then they lost a couple of games to Hurricane Irma (one has been rescheduled). Now, after a home loss to North Carolina State on Saturday, they’ve dropped to 0-2 for the first time since 1989.
True freshman quarterback James Blackman showed promise, passing for 278 yards, but he also fumbled on the end of a fancy scramble and only led two touchdown drives. It would help if Florida State could rely on its running game, but that area of the offense has completely lacked explosiveness thus far. After 53 carries, the Seminoles’ long rush of the year is 16 yards.
What’s coming up won’t be easy, either. The next three opponents are unbeaten: At 4-0 Wake Forest Saturday, hosting 2-0 Miami in a rescheduled rivalry game, then at 3-0 Duke. And after that comes Louisville. The FSU offense needs to mature in a hurry.
4) The TCU breakthrough. Just when we all were set to target the Bedlam game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as potentially the most portentous game in both the Big 12 and the nation, the Horned Frogs trashed the script.
Their 44-31 romp in Stillwater served notice that, a year after TCU finished 6-7, the 4-0 Frogs will have a strong say in who wins the league title. And they’re doing it with a potent running game.
No Big 12 team had run the ball more through three games than TCU, averaging 42.3 carries, and they pounded out another 52 runs Saturday.
Sophomore Darius Anderson showcased his shake against the Cowboys, slashing and sprinting for 160 yards and three touchdowns, plus another 41 yards receiving. He came into the season backing up Kyle Hicks, but an injury kept Hicks out of the game Saturday and the season opener. If and when he returns to health, TCU’s running game should be even better.
The Frogs also were a plus-three turnovers against Oklahoma State. In past years, Mike Gundy’s best teams have all had major turnover margins. This game showed the importance of that stat for the Cowboys, and the cost of being on the wrong side of it.
5) Is there a blooming quarterback controversy at Michigan, or a quarterback discovery?
Much-maligned starter Wilton Speight was hurt early against Purdue on Saturday, which gave John O’Korn a chance to energize a sluggish Wolverines offense. He did so, completing 18 of 26 passes with one touchdown and one interception, and his efficiency rating of 161.5 was the highest by a Michigan quarterback since the ninth game of last season.
Back then, Wolverines fans were pretty satisfied with Speight. Since then, they’ve changed their tune as the Michigan passing game has sputtered.
We’ll see what the extent of his injury is – good luck getting any clarity out of Jim Harbaugh on the subject – and whether O’Korn might get the job based on performance. It was a comeback from cold storage for O’Korn, who attempted the most passes he has in a game since 2014 – when he was a sophomore at Houston. When Greg Ward ascended there under Tom Herman, O’Korn transferred to Michigan. He failed to win the job last year, starting one game in place of an injured Speight and being used primarily as a caretaker against Indiana.
Michigan will have some time to sort out the position, with a bye week ahead before hosting Michigan State Oct. 7. But we all know what will be the hottest topic of conversation among that fan base between now and kickoff against the Spartans.
6) Easy prediction: Many Nebraska fans will start a grassroots movement for Scott Frost to be their coach in 2018.
The former Nebraska quarterback from the 1990s glory days led Central Florida to a 38-10 road thumping of previously unbeaten Maryland, a result that certainly did not go unnoticed in Lincoln. They Cornhusker faithful is fed up with Mike Riley, whose team unimpressively moved to 2-2 after trailing Rutgers at home for part of the game Saturday. That followed a dismal loss to Northern Illinois, which in turn spurred the dismissal of athletic director Shawn Eichorst Thursday.
Things can change, but at this point you couldn’t get a plug nickel for Riley’s chances of seeing a fourth season at Nebraska. Even with just an 8-7 record as a head coach, Frost will have a lot of popular support if the job opens and if UCF continues to win.
(The Knights have a big American Athletic Conference game Saturday against fellow unbeaten Memphis.)
7) The most persistent streak in college football lives on. By the thinnest of margins.
Florida beat Kentucky on Saturday night for the 31st straight time, and as has been the case several times in this run of ownership, it came when the Gators were staring at seemingly certain defeat. This time, trailing by 13 points in the fourth quarter, Florida concocted two touchdown drives for a 28-27 lead – scoring the winning TD with 43 seconds to play on a pass from one-time third string quarterback Luke Del Rio.
Kentucky had a chance to pull out the win on the final play, but a 56-yard field goal by the very good Austin MacGinnis fell short. And the streak lived on.
This might have been the Wildcats’ most painful loss in the series since 1993, when Florida escaped on a Danny Wuerffel touchdown pass to Chris Doering with three seconds left. Kentucky football has mastered the art of the painful loss, and some of its greatest masterpieces are against the Gators.
8) Florida is living extremely dangerously. But surviving. So far.
Think of how the Gators have won their past two games: one on a 63-yard Hail Mary on the last play, this one on a touchdown drive in the final minute. Florida fans are complaining loudly about third-year coach Jim McElwain, but he keeps pulling out wins. His record is now 21-9 at Florida, 15-5 in the SEC – and, most pertinently, 13-1 against the SEC East.
And that’s while cobbling together a quarterback situation that still fails to clarify itself. McElwain might now turn to Del Rio – who was the starter in 2016 until he was injured – or he might go back to freshman Feleipe Franks – whose bomb beat Tennessee. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire appears to be the odd man out.
9) While Florida is fortunate, Georgia is good.
After dominating previously unbeaten Mississippi State, the Bulldogs clearly are the team to beat in the East. The Georgia formula is pretty simple: a lot of defense, a lot of running game, and some Jake Fromm passing as needed.
Georgia has suffocated a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks in the last three weeks. Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush has 366 rushing yards this year – just one of them against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald has 287 rushing yards on the year – just 47 of them against the Bulldogs. Fitzgerald also had by far his worst passing game of 2017 between the hedges Saturday.
If anyone in the wobbly SEC is going to stand up to Alabama, Georgia is the best bet.
10) Speaking of Alabama and the SEC: The mismatches have begun.
The Crimson Tide went into Nashville to play (smirk) undefeated Vanderbilt. Their fans took over the stadium, and their players took over the field. ‘Bama destroyed Vandy 59-0, the most points the Commodores have given up since 2001.
Alabama had a massive 599-yard differential over Vandy, breaking the ‘Bama school record and serving notice: The Commodores may be improved, but they’re still light years behind the Tide.
The victory ran Alabama’s SEC winning streak to 18 games, the last nine all by double digits and the last four by at least 18 points.
11) Washington still has Colorado’s number. And is still a powerful Pac-12 force.
The Huskies walloped the Buffaloes 41-10 in the Pac-12 title game last year, then nearly replicated the margin of victory Saturday in Boulder. The final was 37-10, and it reaffirmed Washington as a legitimate repeat Pac-12 threat. Running back Myles Gaskin had his first huge game of 2017, trampling Colorado for 202 rushing yards, and the always-opportunistic Huskies were a plus-two in turnovers for the night. That makes them a plus-six in that department on the season and a plus-41 in Chris Petersen’s four-season tenure.
Washington and Stanford gave the Pac-12 North a split of four notable games against the South. The Cardinal, playing their first home game of the season, pummeled UCLA (and further diminished the job security of defensive coordinator Tom Bradley). USC struggled on the road for quite a while at California before pulling away late, and Arizona State scored a much-needed victory over previously undefeated Oregon.
12) The Josh Allen buzz is over.
The Wyoming quarterback came into the season hailed as a potential top-five NFL draft pick. Four games in, its almost more pertinent to ask whether he should still be the Cowboys’ starter. The sleeper pick with intriguing size and arm strength is not looking good upon close inspection.
Against FCS Gardner-Webb, Allen was 22 of 32 for 328 yards and two touchdowns. In three games against more comparable competition from the NFL’s view — Iowa, Oregon and Wyoming’s Saturday night opponent, Hawaii — Allen is 41 of 83 (less than 50 percent) for 330 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. His supporting cast may not be great, but at some point a putative transcendent talent has to show more than Allen has to date.