Forde-Yard Dash: Gauging the rise of the Big 12 and the fall of the SEC West

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Rutgers Is Back – Unfortunately” T-shirts sold separately in Piscataway, N.J.):

More Dash: Chip Kelly sweepstakes | Kevin Sumlin hate mail | 5 nemesis games to watch

FIRST QUARTER: THE BIG 12 BREAKS THROUGH

When Oklahoma (1) went into Columbus and routed Ohio State on Saturday, it marked the beleaguered Big 12 conference’s biggest non-league victory since … ummm, a long time ago. Maybe Oklahoma over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl four years ago, but that was a consolation-prize game, with no national championship ramifications whatsoever. Before that, you might have to go back to Texas winning at Ohio State in the very same Horseshoe in 2005 – a victory that propelled the Longhorns toward the national title that season.

But here’s what made the weekend doubly good for the Big 12: The Sooners’ conquest of the Buckeyes wasn’t the only big victory of the day. It followed TCU (2) beating Arkansas by three touchdowns in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Thus the league that has appeared in danger of slipping behind the other four power conferences had its first road victories over Power Five opponents since 2015. Last year the Big 12 had all but played itself out of College Football Playoff contention in September; this year that does not appear to be the case.

In one Saturday, new Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley established himself, and the Horned Frogs’ defensive reputation has been re-established. The Big 12 is grateful for both occurrences.

It took no time for the 33-year-old Riley to tack a big skin on the wall, beating Urban Meyer in his backyard. Riley devised an offensive gameplan that burned the Buckeyes for 490 total yards, the most Ohio State has given up since mid-2014. Riley inherited a very good roster, but still: Talented Oklahoma teams have played small in a lot of big games in recent years. Not this time.

Baker Mayfield’s flag plant was spot on: Oklahoma is in, Ohio State is out. (Screengrab)

For TCU, the program seems to have relocated its defensive DNA. Coach Gary Patterson modernized his offense a few years ago, embracing the up-tempo, spread style that permeates the Big 12, and there was a corresponding collapse of a traditionally tough defense. Last year the Horned Frogs gave up 28 points and 427 yards per game, highest averages in the Patterson Era.

Saturday they held Arkansas to seven points and 267 total yards – the Razorbacks’ fewest points in a home game in four years and fewest yards in three. Combine that with the opening-week shutout of FCS Jackson State and TCU ranks fourth nationally in both rushing and scoring defense.

THE SEC WEST IS ANOTHER MATTER

What once was by far the toughest division in college football once again could be Nick Saban and a bunch of schmoes.

Auburn (3) flopped at Clemson, scoring six points. Auburn has averaged 8.3 points in its past three road games (Georgia and Alabama last year, Clemson this year, all losses) and scored one touchdown in those three games. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham was sacked an ungodly 11 times –  which undoubtedly is testament to the outrageous talent of the Clemson defensive front, but also a condemnation of Auburn.

Arkansas (4) was suffocated, as noted above.

The travails of Texas A&M (5) are documented and might be getting worse. The ghastly collapse at UCLA triggered Board of Regent rage and a reprehensible letter to coach Kevin Sumlin’s home. Then, with starting quarterback Nick Starkel gone for the year, the Aggies staggered past FCS Nicholls 24-14 Saturday night.

LSU (6) is TBD, but the shutout victory over BYU is subject to being downgraded after the inept offensive start to the season by the Cougars (they’re averaging 11 points per game in three contests and have even fewer first downs than points).

As it stands, Alabama has the only SEC West victory over another Power Five opponent. There are only two such games remaining: Syracuse at LSU and Mississippi at California. The Dash suspects Saban isn’t lying awake nights worrying about his divisional rivals.


FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

The Dash’s weekly playoff quartet, chosen as if today were Selection Sunday:

Oklahoma. The Sooners fly up from out of the bracket to the top seed. Nobody has a better victory so far – and, depending on how things unfold, nobody may have a better victory all year. Next: Tulane in Norman on Saturday.

Alabama (7). The Crimson Tide are reluctantly bumped down to the second seed because beating Ohio State in Columbus by 15 is more impressive than beating Florida State on a neutral field by 17. Barely. ‘Bama did what it had to do Saturday in dispatching Fresno State, as we all scan the Tide schedule in search of the next major test. Next: Colorado State at home Saturday.

USC (8)
. The Trojans had the second-best performance of the weekend, plastering Stanford 42-24 in Los Angeles. That more than makes up for the lackadaisical opening victory over Western Michigan (though, it must be said, the Broncos still had a fair amount of talent left over from last year’s Cotton Bowl team). Sam Darnold was on point, and USC was very good in the trenches against the perennially physical Cardinal. Next: Texas in Los Angeles on Saturday.

Sam Darnold and USC looked like they were firing on all cylinders on Saturday. (AP)

Clemson (9). The Tigers’ shutdown of Auburn gets them in the bracket just ahead of Penn State and Michigan. After a slow start, quarterback Kelly Bryant ran and passed with verve. With offensive coordinator Tony Elliott distributing carries with an eye dropper thus far between a number of backs, Bryant quickly has become the centerpiece. Next: at Louisville on Saturday in what is the biggest game in the nation.

There is no Big Ten in the mix for the time being. Penn State and Michigan are on the cusp. Also considered: TCU, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, UCLA, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisville.


MISSISSIPPI’S DAY IN COURT

Starting Monday (and perhaps stretching on for another day or two after that), Mississippi (10) finally faces the NCAA Committee On Infractions for a host of major violations committed over several years and two different coaching staffs. You may have heard a bit about the case, which has splashed mud all over the state – which is one reason this could be a COI hearing unlike any in NCAA history.

Ole Miss officials will be there, of course, answering to 21 allegations and attempting to avoid being hit with even more crushing sanctions. (The school already self-imposed a postseason ban for 2017.)

Hugh Freeze will be there as well. He was the head coach of the Rebels, until fallout from this investigation cost him his job for things that were most assuredly not related to football. Freeze has enough problems from that standpoint, since he is charged with failure of head-coach conduct legislation, a major allegation.

Former Ole Miss staffer Barney Farrar will be there. He’s been positioned as something of a scapegoat, which does not sit well with Farrar or his attorney, Bruse Loyd. There is some level of intrigue as to whether Farrar has the information (and the will) to take down others with him if the hearing turns into a Blame Barney fest.

And, most unusual of all, Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis may in fact be at the hearing as well. His testimony to the NCAA about receiving cash and gifts from Ole Miss boosters is central to the case, and it has been vigorously disputed by Mississippi and some of the boosters allegedly involved. If Lewis shows up, it could be the first time an active student-athlete has been hauled in front of the COI. And it could create quite a scene.

As dramatically weird as this all might be, we won’t get a ruling anytime soon. Rest assured, the NCAA isn’t going to be saying anything before the Egg Bowl game between Ole Miss and Mississippi State on Nov. 23 – no need to further stoke that out-of-control fire. The Rebels and their former coaches will not learn their fate until the last week of November at the earliest.