The celebration was in full swing on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday evening. The Crimson Tide players, having just survived a tractor pull of a 19-14 win over Tennessee, hugged it out with friends on the team they'd just beaten. Parents waited at the fence that lines the field, clapping and shouting their boys' names.
Nick Saban, having just shaken hands with Butch Jones inside a beehive of photographers, emerged from the scrum, turned toward the tunnel and spoke to his entourage.
"Let's get out of here . . . "
That's how everyone felt about Week 8, from the winners in Waco, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the losers in Atlanta and Los Angeles to, above all, Stillwater, Oklahoma. Everyone looked hurt, tired and relieved just to make it to the other side. But most of all, they looked surprised. Remember, Week 8 was supposed to be a joke.
There was only one matchup of top-25 teams, and the teams atop that poll were expected to cruise.
But as the kids like to text: HAHAHAHAHA LOL LMAO!!!
There were two four-OT games. Then-No. 3 Utah was humbled by unranked USC. Baylor won, but lost starting quarterback Seth Russell in the process. Michigan State won, but only after enduring a few minutes of "oh no, is Connor Cook hurt?!" And Florida State had a game-winning kick slapped to the turf and carried into the end zone. The football might as well have been the Seminoles' heart.
Waterlogged LSU looked like it was running in mud against Western Kentucky. Undefeated Temple was pushed to the brink by East Carolina. Memphis was chased by Tulsa. Toledo got an early Halloween scare from . . . UMass? (More on that later.) And, oh yeah, Alabama got that Big Orange tussle from Tennessee.
"Our guys looked sluggish," Saban told the media, recalling a deliberate walkover chat he had with his offensive starters prior to the fourth quarter. "I told them, they aren't stopping us. We're stopping ourselves. A negative play that led to a missed assignment that led to another negative play. We needed to keep our poise. We needed to focus.
"We were tired. We had no energy after eight games in a row. But we did after that."
On Saturday morning, the primary focus of the chatter on the three-hour Alabama pregame show was the ridiculous miss that was the 15.5-point spread. "No way that's even close!" They were right. Not just in the direction they thought it would be. Last Monday on our weekly Championship Drive show on ESPNU, I don't think we mentioned Tennessee-Alabama once. This week we'll talk about it all night.
Now Bama heads into an open date. So do Baylor, Michigan State, LSU and even Toledo. TCU, Notre Dame, Iowa and Florida are back in action after a week off. Saban spoke for them all when he said, "This bye week is going to be big for us in terms of getting some guys healed and getting rested up, so that we can -- maybe -- be at our best down the stretch."
They'd better. Because those teams we tried to write off in September -- Stanford, Clemson and Ohio State, in particular -- look like they're already there. Just in time for the College Football Playoff committee's first ranking next Tuesday.
Now let's get on with Flipping the Field.
The new Clemsoning . . .
As we all learned during coach Dabo Swinney's postgame flip-out two weeks ago (I still think the question was totally fair, by the way), the Tigers have been a mainstay among the sport's upper echelon since their nightmare 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia at the end of the '11 season. Swinney correctly pointed out that they haven't lost to an unranked opponent since NC State in 2011 and have beaten non-conference opponents such as Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and, most recently, Notre Dame. Saturday's 58-0 drubbing of Miami was the team's 16th win in 17 games. The last time Clemson did that was 1947-49, when Frank Howard was coach, aka the guy for whom the playing field is named and the guy who put the Death Valley rock at the top of The Hill.
Clemsoning, Part Deux . . .
Another aspect to the new Clemsoning? Helping opposing coaches out the door. It's no secret that Steve Spurrier's embarrassment over being routed 35-17 by the Tigers last season was a gigantic part of the misery that led him to walk out the door. After Saturday's beatdown of The U, coach Al Golden was ousted by Sunday afternoon following the biggest loss by a Miami team since a 56-point drubbing against Texas A&M in 1944. So, chin up, Warren Sapp, that '44 team went 1-7-1. It could be way worse.
And about those newly opened jobs . . .
After Golden's dismissal and George O'Leary's resignation at UCF, I talked to a handful of college coaches and administrators late Sunday. Most are predicting a bit of a coaching gig landslide by season's end, with as many as a couple dozen spots up for grabs this winter. Because of that scrum, it's a smart play to make a move now and get a jump on the hiring process. So, of the jobs already open, how do they rank in terms of attractiveness? Here's a quick rundown:
1. USC: It'll pay and the roster is already stacked with talent, but Los Angeles living isn't for everyone, especially the southern college town types.
2. South Carolina: It will also pay and the school has sunk millions into facilities on Spurrier's watch. But its in-state recruiting advantage has swung north up I-26 (see: Clemsoning).
3. Miami: Won't pay at the level of the two USC's, but The U has also drastically improved facilities. Recruiting should be easy, but the stadium situation is still awful.
4. Maryland: On paper, the location (D.C. area), the conference (Big Ten) and the backing (Under Armour), look awesome. But the place has been cash-strapped for a while, and the Terps have largely been a football afterthought since Bobby Ross was coach.
5. Illinois: Most of that stuff we just said about Maryland is applicable here (substituting Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis for D.C.); it's just had to play Big Ten little brother for far longer.
6. North Texas: The most underrated stadium in the Gang of Five, and that location on the road between Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma would seem to be a recruiting hot spot, would it not?
7. UCF: The current top-ranked Bottom 10 team's visit to the Fiesta Bowl seems like it was a bazillion years ago -- even though it was only New Year's Day 2014.
The Tommy West Best News Conference of the Week: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State Cowboys
We normally reserve this space for fun. But the poise Gundy showed after his team's win at the end of a tragic homecoming -- at a place that's not only his employer, but also his alma mater -- deserved praise. This was his response when asked how he addressed his team prior to the 58-10 victory over Kansas: "We told them the truth. That's the way we handle situations in our group, with good news, bad news or any news at all. There's really no comparison to a tragic incident like this morning, but we told them the truth in our pregame conversation before we came to the stadium. Part of the development of young people in our organization is knowing that there are things in our lives that we can control, and there are things that we can't control. Today's incident was something we couldn't do anything about. There was certainly not anything we could do if we were going to play the game. Our players understand that. My message to them was that a decision was made to play the game so we need to play the game. After that, we need to do everything we can to help the people and the families involved."
The Scientific Rocket Quotes of the Week:
Named after a gem from former Clemson coach Danny Ford, who once reiterated the obvious by stating: "It doesn't take a scientific rocket to figure that out." Or a rocket scientist, Coach, whatever. The first comes from Clemson's man mountain D-lineman Shaq Lawson, who was asked to explain the scene when Swinney kept the Tigers on the field for a while instead of running directly to the locker room at halftime to tell them to stop jawing with the Miami players. Lawson recalled: "They were the ones doing the talking. We were doing the playing."
The second comes from Baylor coach Art Briles, who could honestly win this award every week. This is what he said about the Bears being without human Mack truck defensive tackle Andrew Billings during the 45-27 win over Iowa State: "It's like Mama not being home for Sunday dinner."
And finally, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald after the Wildcats' slide-ending victory over Nebraska: "I don't know if we lost our mojo. I hate to disappoint bloggers, but our guys don't listen to them." Yeah, Coach, but do they read them?
Horseshoes, hand grenades, etc.
Tennessee and Nebraska have now lost nine games by a combined 30 points. The Vols have suffered a double-OT loss to Oklahoma, a one-point loss to Florida, a four-point loss to Arkansas and a five-point loss to Alabama. The Huskers lost to BYU by five, Miami by three, Illinois by one and Wisconsin and Northwestern by two each. I'm not saying that hurts, but sources tell me that E.L. James is trying to decide whether to move to Lincoln or Knoxville to write the next "50 Shades" trilogy.
Hauling butt, er, Buzz . . .
Perhaps Georgia Tech should consider working the mascot into their triple-option offense. That Yellow Jacket can fly. His entrance into Bobby Dodd Stadium set the tone for what became a big night.
Still, Texas State ain't impressed . . .
The Bobcats nearly went full Auburn, taking a missed 53-yard field goal attempt by South Alabama and using all 100 yards to house it at the end of the first half. Watch it here, but be forewarned, you won't be nearly as fired up as end zone T-shirt speedbag guy.
When Joel Stave went down with a possible concussion late in the first quarter, the Badgers were trailing Illinois 3-0. In came Houston, a redshirt junior, who'd attempted only 13 passes in three years. He went 27-of-33 for 232 yards with a pair of TDs and a pair of INTs. "Yeah, I've been waiting years, three or four or something like that," he said after the 24-13 win. "So yeah, it's fun to play the game again."
The Comeback of the Week Award (also named for Frank Reich): Toledo Rockets
The Rockets remain among the FBS undefeated, but in a recurring theme during Week 8, it took some work. They trailed lowly UMass (sorry, Minutemen, but it's true) 28-10 at the half. Then they answered with a 38-0 run and won 51-35 to keep alive their Toledo vs. American Athletic Conference battle for the coveted Gang of Five New Year's Six bowl berth.
The George Foreman Long-Range Comeback of the Week Award: Washington State Cougars
The Cougars caught a lot of grief (especially in this column) for their season-opening loss to FCS Portland State. But since then, they are 5-1, their only loss coming at Cal. They're also 3-1 in the Pac-12 North and host division leader Stanford on Halloween night (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Because, you know, he has been here for years. During the Buckeyes' 49-7 rout of Rutgers, the starter-turned-backup-turned-starter produced 324 yards of offense, which single-handedly outgained the entire Knights roster (293). And his 101 yards rushing was only 29 fewer than third-stringer-turned-starter-turned-backup Cardale Jones' total this season.
The guy you should know about but probably don't: Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
The reason the Cougs are suddenly so hot? This guy. He scorched Arizona for 514 yards and five TDs. It was his second 500-yard game of the season. All of FBS entered Saturday with just one. It was also his third five-TD game, tied with Baylor's Russell and Bowling Green's Matt Johnson for most thus far in 2015.
Remember one year ago, when Dak Not Zack was the buzziest player in college football? Well, the Bulldogs might not be the team they were in 2014, but he's still that player. Against Kentucky, he went 25-of-35 for 348 yards and three TDs through the air, and added 117 yards rushing and three more TDs on just 13 carries. That tied a school record for most TDs responsible for, set in 1952 by Jackie Parker against Auburn. Prescott did throw one awful interception, but seeing as how it was his first pick of the season (and his first in 289 throws), we'll cut him some slack.
Yes, "Most TDs Responsible For" is a real stat.
And Prescott is among some seriously great SEC company on the career list. He just passed Johnny Football, and his sights are set next on Peyton Manning. (Well, him and Chris Leak.) From the good folks at ESPN Stats & Information and their army of calculators:
Most Career TDs Responsible For -- SEC History
2006-09, Tim Tebow, Florida: 145
2010-13, Aaron Murray, Georgia: 137
1993-96, Danny Wuerffel, Florida: 122
2003-06, Chris Leak, Florida: 101
1994-97, Peyton Manning, Tennessee: 101
2012-15, Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 96
2012-13, Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 93
The game you should be psyched for but probably aren't: UNC at Pitt (Thursday, 7 p.m. PM ET, ESPN)
The ACC Coastal is the spaghetti pile of college football, but someone has to go to Charlotte on Dec. 5 to play the winner of the Atlantic (aka the winner of the FSU-Clemson game). Duke, North Carolina and Pittsburgh, who are all 6-1, are the leading candidates, and they begin a three-week round robin Thursday night. The following weekend, UNC hosts Duke, and then Duke hosts Pitt. In the middle of it all, Pitt hosts Notre Dame on Nov. 7. If the ACC champ wants to prevent being left out of the College Football Playoff, then the winner of the Atlantic needs the winner of the Coastal to bring a solid résumé, similar to the favor Georgia Tech did for FSU one year ago.
Speaking of the ACC Coastal . . .
I am told that it is still mathematically possible for the division to end in a seven-way tie. As a kid who grew up attending countless generic Tobacco Road football games, I want this to happen SO badly.
Speaking of Pitt, if you're a Colts fan, don't watch this . . .
But everyone else should see it. The Panthers ran a fake punt to perfection, keeping alive the drive that finished with a game-winning field goal at Syracuse. Here it is. Feel free to forward this to Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis.
The team you should know about but probably don't: Appalachian State Mountaineers
The Mountaineers got Week 8 kicked off with a 31-17 throttling of longtime Southern Conference and now-Sun Belt rival Georgia Southern. App State (don't call them Appy State, they hate that) is 6-1, their only loss coming at Clemson in Week 2. Sure, losing 41-10 is never good, no matter the opponent, but the Mountaineers certainly gave the Tigers a better game than Miami did. After a lot of internal arguing over whether the FCS powerhouse should make the jump to the FBS, the program best known for knocking off Michigan in 2007 got off to a terrible start, beginning last season 1-5 and bottoming out with an overtime loss to Liberty. Since then, they're 12-1 and thinking about their first bowl bid.
Extra Point: About that Appalachian State bowl berth . . . let me clarify. The Mountaineers haven't been to an FBS bowl, but they have been to bowl games before. Sort of. Back in the day, they played in invitation-only postseason games organized by local charities (which is actually how a lot of current bowl committees would like for us to describe them). In 1950 and '54, ASU played in two bowl games in one week. Take that, College Football Playoff teams! I'm a sucker for awesomely weird, old bowl-game names (Gotham City Bowl, y'all), but App State's first might be my favorite bowl name of all time:
Appalachian State bowl appearances
1937 Doll and Charity Game, Biloxi, Miss.; 7-0 loss to Southern Miss
1938 Unnamed Bowl, Winston-Salem, N.C.; 20-0 win vs. Moravian College
1948 Burley Bowl, Johnson City, Tenn.; 7-2 loss to West Chester
1949 Pythian Bowl, Salisbury, N.C.; 21-7 win vs. Catawba College
1950 Burley Bowl, Johnson City, Tenn.; 26-6 loss to Emory & Henry
1950 Pythian Bowl, Salisbury, N.C.; 28-26 loss to West Liberty State College
1954 Burley Bowl, Johnson City, Tenn.; 27-13 win vs. East Tennessee State
1954 Elks Bowl, Raleigh, N.C.; 20-13 loss to Newberry College
1955 Burley Bowl, Johnson City, Tenn.; 7-0 loss to East Tennessee State