Four college football Saturdays have come and gone already, and for most teams, that means one-third of the season is in the books. That might not seem like much at first blush, but we can learn a lot from one-third of a season.
Think about it. A third of the way through "The Godfather Part III," it was obvious that everyone came back just for the money. After a third of a marathon, you've already realized it was a terrible idea to run a marathon. A third of the way through Alabama's 49-7 win over Southern Miss on Saturday, Crimson Tide students had figured out how to turn off location services on their cellphones.
We don't know everything, certainly. Who'll win the SEC? Who'll take home the Heisman Trophy? When will we get sick of the boy band AT&T commercial? There are lots of mysteries that remain. But we have learned some important details about the 2019 season, so let's review:
It's time for Michigan fans to burn their khakis
Normally, we'd suggest caution here. Michigan has its really big game waiting in late November. The Wolverines, despite Saturday's loss to Wisconsin, are still very much alive for a Big Ten title, a College Football Playoff berth and a championship. But if you watched the game -- the way the offense couldn't sustain drives, the way defenders were constantly out of position, the way the Badgers ran at will, even without Jonathan Taylor for a long stretch -- it seems hard to imagine any scenario in which Jim Harbaugh has answers to fix all this.
Meanwhile, anyone hoping that the losses of Urban Meyer and Dwayne Haskins spelled doom for Ohio State is going to be grossly disappointed. No, the Buckeyes haven't yet been tested. But hoo boy, Justin Fields sure looks like the real deal. He scored six times in the second quarter against Miami (Ohio). To put that into perspective, that's one more score than Arizona State had in its first three games.
More than that, though, it's the history, which feels bigger and more overwhelming with every ugly loss for the Wolverines. Harbaugh is now 4-11 versus teams ranked in the top 15 at game time. He is 14-11 away from the Big House. He is 5-11 away from home against winning teams. Everything about that screams mediocrity -- not a team on the cusp of something bigger.
The Pac-12 might miss the playoff, but it isn't a mess
It isn't enough to ignore your family for an entire Saturday. Pac-12 After Dark ensures that half your Sunday is shot too. But boy, Washington State and UCLA made it worthwhile.
The Cougars blew a 49-17 lead, the two teams combined for 62 points in just more than a quarter's worth of action and pretty much everything that could happen in a college football game happened in the second half of the 67-63 decision in Pullman.
Demetric Felton had two plays of 90-plus yards: a 100-yard kick return and a 94-yard touchdown reception. No other player in the past 15 years has had two 90-yard plays in one season.
Washington State tied a college football record for most points scored in a losing effort. UCLA's 50 points in the second half were eight more than it had in its first three games combined.
The two teams combined for 130 points, the most in Pac-12 history.
It was sublime, as is the entire Pac-12 at this point. Oregon, Washington and, as of Friday, Utah each have a loss, which is a brutal start for the big-name playoff contenders in the Pac-12. Odds are the league is going to miss the playoff for the third time in four years. But look a little deeper and there's so much to love.
Washington State might be terrible and great at the same time. USC is on its third QB, but it has two wins over ranked opponents, and its only loss came in overtime. Then there's Cal, now 4-0 after toppling Ole Miss on the road in spite of a noon Eastern Time kickoff. The Golden Bears' defense is legit, and quarterback Chase Garbers looks to be finding his footing. Justin Wilcox might not have the biggest name in the playoff hunt, but Cal looks to be for real.
Who cares if there's no playoff berth in sight? The Pac-12 remains the most fun.
It's more likely than not that the SEC will get two playoff teams
Georgia thumped its chest after last year's Cotton Bowl, laughing that Notre Dame was selected to the playoff ahead of the Bulldogs. The best team, they said, doesn't always have the better record.
Saturday's 23-17 Georgia win certainly won't prove that point, but it was an emphatic reminder to the committee that, yes, someone has to lose the SEC, and that team is still probably better than most anyone else in college football. If Georgia's defense keeps playing like this -- 46 yards on the ground allowed to the Fighting Irish -- it's entirely possible that the Bulldogs won't have to worry about getting in without a conference title this season. But the bigger takeaway is that Saturday's win won't rewrite the history of 2018, though it might convince the committee to view things from a different perspective in 2019.
Alabama was a given, though through four weeks, it's still a little hard to say how much the Tide have grown since being blasted by Clemson in last season's title game. They've played Duke, New Mexico State, South Carolina and Southern Miss, and none came close to challenging Alabama.
What's impressive, however, is that Auburn and LSU look like they might genuinely push Alabama. OK, we say this every September, right? But this feels different. Auburn has taken down two very good teams, has a QB with a genuinely high ceiling that could make the Tigers genuinely special and features an offense that looks more intriguing than it has at any time since 2013.
Pitt completes upset of UCF with 'Pitt Special'
Pittsburgh replicates the Eagles' famous "Philly Special" as Aaron Mathews completes a 3-yard touchdown to QB Kenny Pickett to give the Panthers the lead.
LSU, meanwhile, might as well be coached by Lincoln Riley. The Tigers might not be a great defensive team, as it turns out. They've already allowed 38 points in a game twice, including to a bad Vandy team on Saturday, which would normally spell doom. But this offense is something else. Joe Burrow's stat line in his past eight games: 74% completion rate, 31 touchdowns, four turnovers.
Can LSU, Auburn or Georgia end the Alabama playoff run? It might not matter. The SEC is going to have a great case for two playoff teams.
The Big 12 is going to be the playoff wild card
Texas turned on the jets after halftime against Oklahoma State, with Sam Ehlinger and the offense topping 38 points for the fourth time in four games this season. That's something the Longhorns did three times all of the past season.
Add it all up and there are aren't many scenarios we can write off in the Big 12 (aside from Kansas, which we wrote off in 2010). There are probably at least two playoff-caliber teams in this league, but Texas has already likely used up its margin of error, and with the SEC's push to get two playoff teams, the depth of the Big 12 could work against it.
Clemson will win the ACC
The Tigers no longer need to bring their own guts to get to the playoff. It would be nice if someone would bring a little competition for them, though.
Welcome to Pittsadelphia
As a general rule, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia don't mix. Pennsylvania's eastern and western metros share little beyond a governor. One tops sandwiches with french fries, the other with Cheez Whiz. One has Sheetz, the other has Wawa (which is better -- don't @ us).
But every so often, the stars align and the two cities find a common bond. Usually this is when either the Steelers or Eagles are playing the Patriots. But on Saturday, it came on a dramatic fourth-down "Philly Special" run to wild perfection by Kenny Pickett and Pitt, which toppled UCF 35-34.
Newman tosses fifth TD on Washington's contested grab
On fourth down, Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman throws to Scotty Washington in the end zone, and he rises up in traffic for a 31-yard touchdown catch.
How big was the play? It was UCF's first regular-season loss in more than two years. Second, it was Pitt's first win over a top-15 team since it upset No. 2 Miami in November 2017. Pitt had been 6-57 since 2010 in games in which it trailed at any point in the fourth quarter.
Even Nick Foles would've been impressed.
There isn't much point in discussing the clear top five in the Heisman race at the moment, all of whom had huge outings on Saturday, save Jalen Hurts, who was off. Tua Tagovailoa (293 yards, 5 TDs), Joe Burrow (398 yards, 6 TDs), Jonathan Taylor (203 yards, 2 TDs) and Justin Fields were dominant, but let's spice things up by looking at five other players who haven't gotten nearly so much attention despite terrific starts to the season.
Cal LB Evan Weaver: It's safe to say no player had a bigger Saturday than Weaver, who had 22 tackles against Ole Miss, none bigger than standing up QB Matt Corral at the goal line on a fourth-down run on the game's final play. Weaver's 22 stops were the most against an SEC opponent by any defender in at least 15 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. For the season, Weaver has 51 tackles in four games and has led the way for a Cal defense that has yet to allow more than two touchdowns in a game.
Eastern Michigan blocks punts, scores game-winning TD
Trailing by one with 18 seconds to play, Eastern Michigan's Mathew Sexton blocks the punt and returns it for a game-winning score.
Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman: Since taking over as the starter on Nov. 8 last season, Newman has been fantastic, accounting for 27 touchdowns and more than 2,600 yards in eight games -- seven of which were wins. He had five TD passes and threw for 351 yards in limited duty on Saturday against Elon.
Florida State RB Cam Akers: So maybe the Seminoles haven't quite caught your eye. That's understandable. But don't overlook the work Akers is doing. He almost single-handedly saved FSU against ULM in Week 2, and his 112 yards and three touchdowns carried the Seminoles past Louisville on Saturday. A year ago, Akers had no help at all, becoming the first Power 5 back since at least 2011 to average less than 1 yard before contact. Now, he is leading the ACC in rushing.
Coastal Carolina RB CJ Marable: OK, we're not expecting any Chanticleers to get an invite to New York City, but Marable has topped 100 yards in all four games this season, including recording 141 yards and two touchdowns against UMass on Saturday. For the season, Marable's 556 yards from scrimmage rank in the top 10 nationally.
Washington State QB Anthony Gordon: The national leader in passing yards doesn't play at Alabama or Clemson. It's Gordon, Mike Leach's latest success story. He broke Gardner Minshew's school record with nine TD passes against UCLA on Saturday, adding another 570 yards to his season total, which leads the nation.
The total package
Iowa State's Brock Purdy showed off his arm (435 passing yards, 3 TDs) and his legs (75 rush yards, 3 TDs) against Louisiana-Monroe, setting an Iowa State record for total offense in a game in the process.
But how rare is it for a player to have a combination of 400 pass yards, 75 rush yards and three touchdowns each way? Pretty darn rare. The most recent guy to do it was Clemson's Tajh Boyd in 2012, when he totaled 529 yards and set an ACC record with eight total touchdowns against NC State.
No other player in the past 15 years has done it.
The fourth is strong with the Badgers
In a season with some woeful fourth-down decisions (hi, Pat Narduzzi), it was refreshing to see Paul Chryst rely on his offense throughout the first half of Wisconsin's win over Michigan.
Chryst went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 34, running Jonathan Taylor for a conversion.
On the same drive, Chryst went for it again from the 1-yard line, with Coan getting into the end zone for a 21-0 lead.
Entering Saturday, FBS teams were converting 61.2% of their fourth-down tries in the first halves of games and 67% on fourth-and-3 or less, so Chryst was smart to play the numbers.
Ironically, Michigan also converted three times on fourth down in the game. This was more out of necessity, however. The Wolverines were 0-for-10 on third down.
This week in ACC misery
Kudos to Florida State, which watched another big first-half lead disappear, its starting QB get hurt and the utter misery of the 2019 season appear to reach its nadir against Louisville, only to put the brakes on another implosion. Here's a funny thought: What would you think of a team that was 2-2, held a lead in the second half of all four games and both losses came to ranked teams? Well, that's FSU -- for better or worse.
Boston College avoided what would've been the most embarrassing two-game stretch in recent college football history by pulling away from Rutgers in the second half. It was a close call for BC, which would've, by law, been relegated to NAIA for losing to Kansas and Rutgers in consecutive weeks.
UVA toyed with being the second team from Virginia to fall victim to an Old Dominion upset bid, trailing the Monarchs by 10 at the half. Given that the Hoos are the ACC's best hope to finish the season with more than one ranked team, it would've been a disaster. Bryce Perkins managed to salvage the affair with a strong second half, however.
Lest you think the ACC completely escaped the awfulness, we give you Miami and North Carolina. The Canes managed just seven first-half points and barely escaped Central Michigan, while North Carolina saw its 56-yard field goal blocked as time expired to lose to Appalachian State.
They're still a rival
Kelly Bryant isn't playing for Clemson anymore, but he still is sticking it to the Tigers' rival. Bryant threw for 227 yards, ran for 77 more and tossed two TDs in Missouri's easy win over the Gamecocks.
Bryant's old team ran roughshod over Charlotte, which meant limited action for Trevor Lawrence, who threw nine passes for 94 yards, while the Tigers used 111 players in the game.
If you're keeping score at home, Bryant has more passing yards (1,025 to 925), more passing touchdowns (eight to seven) and fewer interceptions (three to five) than Lawrence through four games. Oddly, Lawrence has a 3-0 edge in rushing touchdowns, though.
Underrated play of the week
It's understandable if UConn has turned you off to football in the state altogether, but Central Connecticut State was on the verge of a huge upset in Ypsilanti, Michigan, leading Eastern Michigan by a point with 10 seconds to play. All it had to do was get off a punt at midfield. In retrospect, the team should've taken a knee. EMU blocked the kick, and Mathew Sexton scooped up the ball and rumbled 30 yards for a game-winning score.
Underrated game of the week
Aside from UCLA-Washington State, there might not have been a more entertaining tilt on Saturday than the Rio Grande Rivalry between New Mexico and New Mexico State -- even if there's virtually no chance you watched it. No, neither team is very good, but a 55-52 New Mexico win in a game that featured nearly 1,100 yards, 56 first downs, 10 ties or lead changes, a furious Aggies comeback from 17 down and a 10-play New Mexico drive with a fourth-down conversion to ice the game? Yeah, that's pretty fun.
Twitter GIFs of the week
New phone, who dis �� pic.twitter.com/m5fqQzdXun
- SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 21, 2019
Interestingly, this is actually how all good news is celebrated in New Jersey.
He really punched his QB in the face to celebrate the TD �� pic.twitter.com/Yc9zVpLDHQ
- ESPN (@espn) September 21, 2019
Assist of the week
Ehlinger's four TDs lead Texas to tough win over Oklahoma State
Sam Ehlinger throws for 281 yards and four touchdowns, and Roschon Johnson adds a fourth-quarter touchdown run as Texas finishes with a 36-30 win over Oklahoma State.
Best bets and bad beats
LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger makes about $800,000 per year, but everyone who has been backing the Bayou Bengals probably should cut him a check for a little extra. Since Ensminger took over the LSU offense to start the 2018 season, the over is 12-5, including 4-0 so far this season.
Those who don't learn from history, as the old adage says, are doomed to bet on Michigan at Camp Randall. At least, that's how we think the adage goes. In any case, Michigan is now 0-6 against the number in Madison since 2000. Overall, the Wolverines are 2-10-1 against the spread in their past 13 games against Wisconsin. Michigan also is 0-7 SU and 2-5 ATS as an underdog under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
We should've seen some bad beats coming Saturday, given that Thursday and Friday each turned in some doozies. Start with Tulane's fake kneel to run out the clock in the final seconds of action that turned into an 18-yard run followed by a 53-yard touchdown pass with three seconds remaining. Tulane, a four-point favorite, won by seven. Then on Friday, FIU was a seven-point 'dog and scored with 46 seconds to play to pull within five. Winner, right? Not so fast. Louisiana Tech scooped an onside kick attempt and returned it 30 yards for a TD and a 12-point win.
Notre Dame fans aren't thrilled with the latest loss in a big game. Brian Kelly falls to 11-15 against top-15 opponents. That frustration might have rubbed off a bit on Las Vegas over the years. This was the eighth time in the past 25 years that Notre Dame was ranked in the top 10 but entered a game as a double-digit underdog. That's twice as often as anyone else in that span. The good news for Irish backers, however, is the Irish are 6-2 against the spread in those games, including easily covering the 16-point spread on Saturday.
As good as life is at the top of the SEC, things aren't so sweet at the bottom, where the league has supplied two of the season's three biggest upsets so far, courtesy of Tennessee's loss to Georgia State in Week 1 and Arkansas (-19.5) falling to San Jose State on Saturday. The Razorbacks were -1600 to win but never led in the game.