"Well, we won. We didn't lose. So on to the next week ..."
Those were the words of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, half-smiling and his clothes half-askew after having just survived a 33-26 overtime win at West Virginia. It was the Cowboys' third consecutive Houdini act, following a rally and three-point win at Texas and a rally and two-point win over Kansas State. If they held a beauty pageant for winning ugly, Oklahoma State would be the Miss America of pigskin repugnance.
The Cowboys would also have some stiff competition from a crowded field: TCU, Ohio State, Michigan State, Utah, Florida State, Florida, LSU -- all of them, whether they were preseason favorites or midseason surprises, are stumbling, scrambling, catching breaks and suffering broken bones.
But they are also undefeated. And as Gundy noted, that's all that matters in this weird, wacko, whimsical, wear-you-out season. As 2015 approaches the crossed flags (that's a motorsports reference that means we're hitting the halfway mark), the goal for each team each week has changed since August, when everyone's records were as clean as their unused uniforms.
The goal is no longer to win games. It's to not lose games. And yeah, there's a difference.
On Wednesday, I was invited to participate in a College Football Playoff mock selection committee exercise. It's the second time I've done it and it's been fascinating both go-rounds. Each time, I've left with a reinforced understanding that ultimate inclusion or exclusion in the final four is all about the résumé written during the regular season. It's not just who you beat but also how you beat them, when you beat them and how those big wins compare to the big wins of others.
"There's a big-picture feeling of who a team really is," selection committee chairman Jeff Long explained. "We don't meet until November because by then you really have that understanding. If we met earlier, those identities probably haven't been established yet. By the time we do meet, that should be coming into focus. You would hope so, anyway."
But when everyone's résumé is a hot mess, those IDs are still stuck in the printer. Style points don't matter because no one has any style. So what does matter? To hear Gundy and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher tell it, survive and advance is the motto -- that and hope the field of undefeateds continues to narrow, as it did in Week 6, from 20 to 16.
"Was it an ugly win? I don't know about that," Fisher said after the Seminoles' 29-24 W over Miami, the latest in a three-game stretch of non-pretty victories. "If it was, I'll take eight more of them and see where that puts us in January."
Not losing has also become the mantra among the teams that aren't undefeated and are already out of the playoff hunt. The majority of the Georgia-Tennessee analysis centered on how terrible life would be for the coach who lost the game, Mark Richt or Butch Jones. Same for the Red River Rivalry, where Texas' Charlie Strong went from fired to mosh-pitted and OU's Bob Stoops went from feel-good contender to re-becoming Big Game Bob.
On that note, let's get on with Flipping The Field. And we start with the one team that is winning pretty. Old-school pretty ...
Michigan's D is so good, but it could've been even better. Dang UNLV.
When then-18th-ranked Michigan skunked then-13th-ranked Northwestern 38-0, it marked the Wolverines' third straight shutout, the first FBS team to pull that off since Kansas State in 1995, and the first Michigan team to do it since 1980 (shout-out to Andy Cannavino and Keith Bostic). Even more impressive is that two of those zeroes came against ranked opponents (BYU and the Wildcats), and UM also scored at least 28 points in each victory. The Wolverines are only the fifth team in history to pull that off and the first since Notre Dame in 1966. All but one of those first four teams went on to win the national championship (c'mon, '56 Georgia Tech, you're killing us). What's more, the streak could be even more ridiculous if not for a fourth-quarter, meant-nothing late TD by UNLV in Week 3. That's the only score allowed since Oregon State's first-quarter touchdown way back on Sept. 12. The 38 total points UM has allowed are the fewest through six games by a Michigan team since 1985. The quarterback that year? Jim Harbaugh.
Everything comes big in Texas
Last week, Baylor coach Art Briles, never one to avoid Lone Star State-sized hyperbole, said that this year's Bears are the best he's had in his eight years in Waco, and "it's not even close." There might not be any exaggeration in there, certainly not when it comes to offensive production. Since college football designated a "major" classification in 1937, no team has scored more points over its first five games than Baylor's 321 this season (64.2 per game). That tops a pair of 2013 teams, when Oregon scored 296 points and the Bryce Petty-led Bears tallied 317. Those teams finished 10-2 and 11-2, respectively.
But not in the ACC
Wake Forest and Boston College met in the We Both Almost Beat Florida State Classic and carried a 0-0 score into halftime, the first time this season that an FBS game hit the break scoreless. That score carried well into the second half, when the Deacons finally managed a field goal before winning 3-0. It was the first 3-0 final score in an FBS game since the 2008 Sun Bowl (Oregon State over Pitt). There were more turnovers (six) than points, and Wake won despite gaining only five first downs. Just last week Duke and Georgia Tech set a five-year mark for lowest pregame over/under of 36.5 and went under with a total of 16 points. Just last year Wake and Virginia Tech went to overtime with a 0-0 score, gifting us with this infamous Frank Beamer moment that still manages to find its way onto my Twitter timeline at least once every weekend.
But Duke, though ...
The Blue Devils might win ugly (see: 9-7 over Boston College) ... but they win, defeating woeful Army at West Point for their 11th road win in 12 tries. David Cutcliffe's teams have started 5-1 the last two years. The last time Duke did that was 1952-53.
Meanwhile, in North Texas ...
The Mean Green were housed on homecoming by FCS team Portland State 66-7, after which coach Dan McCarney was fired. It was not an easy decision for North Texas administrators, among whom McCarney is widely beloved. In 2012, I chatted with McCarney, the former Iowa State coach and Hayden Fry/Barry Alvarez disciple, about the uphill task of building a program in Denton, Texas, and he admitted that he relished the hard work, saying, "All we know how to do around here is work like hell and fight like hell." The following year, the Mean Green joined Conference USA, won nine games and won the Heart of Dallas Bowl over UNLV. But after a 4-8 campaign last year and a 0-5 start this year, the fall was too hard. Apogee Stadium is one of the best-kept secrets in college football, the crown jewel of a North Texas campus packed with surprisingly great facilities, sitting in the center of Texas/Oklahoma high school talent. McCarney's successor will be walking into a ton of quick turnaround potential.
Speaking of Portland State ...
Remember the other FBS team the Vikings defeated this year, Washington State? Well, the Coogs have quietly rallied to a 3-2 record, thanks to Saturday's 45-38 win over Oregon in OT, their first win over the Ducks since 2006. Afterward, the official Wazzu Twitter account won the CFB Internet by poking a little fun at the Ducks' Oregon Trail tribute uniforms.
And because you can't get enough Portland State ...
The Vikings became just the second FCS school to defeat two FBS programs in the same season, joining North Dakota State, which beat Central Michigan and Minnesota in 2007. The last instance was way back in '01, when Troy (then Troy State) won three games against the big boys and Connecticut won two. But that season both of those schools were "transition" programs, listed as 1-A (FBS) independents as they were in the process of moving out of 1-AA (FCS). And North Dakota State is a straight-up machine, the four-time defending FCS national champs. But Portland State is a straight-up FCS program, a Big Sky Conference member that has only made the FCS playoff field once and had beaten FBS schools only twice prior to this year (Hawaii in 2000 and New Mexico in 2006).
The Frank Reich Backup QB of the Week Award: Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
On Saturday morning, the Bulldogs' backup quarterback was awakened by his roommate, who informed him that he'd been awake all night throwing up. His roommate just happens to be the starting QB, Dak Prescott. "It hit that this was time to get ready to go," the freshman explained. "My mindset somehow switched." On the second play from scrimmage against Troy, Prescott hit Fred Ross for a 65-yard TD pass, but by the fourth series, the senior had pulled himself from the game. Fitzgerald stepped in and completed 6 of 7 passes for 141 yards and two TDs and added 29 yards rushing with another TD. Not bad for a guy who'd thrown only four passes in the previous five games.
The Jonathan "Mox" Moxon You're Never Getting Into the Game Award: Manny Wilkins, Arizona State
Entering last weekend, every single team in the Pac-12 had found some playing time for their backup quarterback except the Sun Devils. A top-heavy schedule and unexpected game-long battles, even against Cal-Poly, meant starter Mike Bercovici had taken every snap for ASU ... until the end of this week's 48-23 rout of Colorado. Wilkins led the final two drives of the game, carrying the ball twice for 10 yards and earning a delay of game penalty.
The Comeback of the Week Award (also named for Frank Reich): Tennessee(!)
After being the team on the wrong end of this award three times this season, the Volunteers finally pulled off a rally of their very own. After blowing a trio of 13-plus-point leads, they trailed Georgia by 21 late in the first quarter but came back to win 38-31, the third-largest comeback in school history, behind a 25-point deficit against Vanderbilt in 1987 and a 24-point gap at Notre Dame in 1991, a win still considered by many Tennessee fans to be the program's greatest victory. The win over then-No. 19 UGA was just the Vols' second over a ranked opponent in the last 30 tries, and it's first over Georgia in six years. Check out this graphic from ESPN Stats & Information, illustrating the win probability numbers as the game went on. But you might want to take a Dramamine first.
The Tommy West Best News Conference of the Week Award: Randy Edsall, Maryland
Amid reports that he won't be retained in 2016, Edsall responded on Friday by quoting Wiz Khalifa on Twitter. After losing to Ohio State 49-28, Edsall hosted a tense postgame presser at the Horseshoe, which ended on a question about his shaking hands with players after the game, reminding that he does it after every Maryland game, and angrily walking out. In a related note, and this includes the epic '09 Tommy West just-fired-from-Memphis presser that this award is named for, why are there always a couple of people in the room who insist on throwing in a weak smattering of applause as these awkward Q&As end? Are they hoping to start an '80s teen movie slow clap? Because, spoiler alert, it makes it worse.
Speaking of which ...
Public service announcement: Don't use the phrase "Clemsoning" to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. No, seriously. Don't.
The guy you should know about but probably don't: Jordan Canzeri, RB, Iowa
At 5-foot-9, 192 pounds, this senior from Troy, New York, is a bowling ball. He even looks like a bowling ball when the Hawkeyes go with their nearly solid black uniforms. On Saturday, he mowed down Illinois like pins at your local AMF lanes, rolling up 256 yards and a TD (he also added a receiving touchdown), bringing his season total to 697 yards. Over the past three weeks alone, he has posted 496 yards, topping his entire 2014 11-game total of 494. It was the third-highest single-game rushing mark in Iowa history, earned on a record number of carries (43).
The team you should know about but probably don't: Temple
The Owls haven't exactly played an SEC West schedule, but they are 5-0 for the first time since 1974, and are now 2-0 in the American, the conference most likely to provide the Gang of Five representative in the New Year's Six bowl games. During Saturday's 49-10 win over Tulane, four different Owls rushed for at least 19 yards, eight different Owls caught at least one pass, two different Owls played quarterback and four different Owls scored touchdowns. A total of eight players were credited with carries, the same number of rushing yards produced by the nine Tulane players who carried the ball on Saturday. You might not have Temple's Halloween visit from Notre Dame circled on your calendar, but the Owls sure do. According to ESPN's FPI numbers, that's the only game Temple won't be favored in for the remainder of the regular season.
The game you should be psyched for but probably aren't: Ole Miss at Memphis (Saturday, noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)
To a casual fan, it might look like a "let's get this over with and get back to the SEC" game for the Rebs, but it won't be. This is a backyard fight between two programs separated by only 80 miles and a lot of kitchen tables split by school loyalties. For all the hype surrounding Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, it's Memphis signal-caller Paxton Lynch who is starting to make NFL scouts drool. There was an audible groan from Beale Street when Ole Miss lost to Florida. They were hoping for a matchup of undefeateds. Regardless, if the Tigers are going to make a statement about their worthiness of the Gang of Five's New Year's bowl berth (not to mention possible membership in a Power 5 conference), this will be the game.
Extra point: Whether he wins the Heisman or not, LSU's Leonard Fournette had a Heisman-worthy moment on Saturday against South Carolina. No, it wasn't his 87-yard TD run in the third quarter. It was his declaration after LSU's 45-24 win over the Gamecocks, who were playing a displaced home game, that he would auction off his game-worn jersey to help with South Carolina's post-flood recovery effort.