We are now 11 weeks into the college football season, and only three undefeated teams remain: Georgia, Cincinnati and UTSA.
Just as we all predicted at the beginning of the year.
Saturday saw Michigan rally past Penn State, Oklahoma have its bid for perfection end at the hands of Baylor, a game-winning 62-yard field goal and a wild overtime game between Texas and Kansas that ended with a stunning two-point conversion.
All in all, our reporters make sense of Week 11 and what happens next.
Steve Sarkisian needs answers, fast
The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry has often been a game where legends are made and coaches’ legacies are defined. In this year’s version, as we all know by now, Texas took a 38-20 lead into halftime and Longhorns fans were celebrating their new coach’s arrival on the scene.
Thirty-eight days later, it appears that was the beginning of a freefall for Texas. Oklahoma stormed back to win, the first of four straight games in which Steve Sarkisian lost a halftime lead. On Saturday, during Texas’ fifth straight loss — the Longhorns’ longest skid since 1956, the year before Darrell Royal was hired — they added a new historic footnote, becoming the first Big 12 team to lose at home to Kansas since 2008. That’s not the legacy Sarkisian envisioned when he arrived in Austin and proclaimed back in July, “We’ve got a roster that is one that is more than capable of being competitive at a high level.”
First seasons are rarely predictable. Nick Saban went 7-6 in Year 1 at Alabama, losing to a 6-6 UL Monroe team in the process. But Saban had a track record, having already won a national championship at LSU. Sarkisian, unfortunately, does too. He went 5-7 in his first season at Washington, but that was taking over a team that went 0-12 the season before, so there was optimism. Since then, however, Sarkisian has never lost fewer than four games in a full season as a head coach at Washington or USC. Last year, Texas lost three games by a total of 13 points and Tom Herman got fired.
The Longhorns are making the wrong kind of history. They entered Saturday 79-0 as a favorite of at least 24 points since 1978 — Kansas was 0-100 as a 24-point underdog in that same span — and yet the 31-point underdogs pulled off the win in Austin. Then there’s the soap opera factor: Off the field, discussions of late have centered on an assistant coach’s pet monkey, a starting wide receiver’s argument with Sarkisian and subsequent departure, and players leaking videos of angry coaches.
It’s fair to say Texas has hit rock bottom. This is one school that doesn’t like being embarrassed. And right now it is. — Dave Wilson
Don’t overlook Oklahoma State
Let’s do a little blind résumé comparison:
Team A is 9-1 with a 5-1 mark against FPI top-50 opponents (with a 12.2 points-per-game margin) and three wins vs. teams ranked at game time. Its lone loss came on the road by three points to a preseason AP top-10 team. Its ESPN Strength of Record is No. 6 nationally.
Team B is 9-1 with a 4-1 mark against FPI top-50 opponents (with a 10.6 points-per-game margin) and one win vs. a team ranked at game time. Its lone loss came at home by seven points to a preseason AP top-10 team. Its ESPN Strength of Record is No. 9 nationally.
So, which team would you have ranked higher?
Odds are, most folks would say Team A, though it’s certainly close. But when it comes to the AP poll, the coaches’ poll and, likely, the College Football Playoff committee’s ranking, it will be Team B that’s ahead by a significant margin.
This has a lot to do with the things we, as voters, fans and analysts, tend to notice most easily. Team A is Oklahoma State and Team B is Ohio State.
The Buckeyes seem incredibly impressive because they’ve routinely put up a lot of points. But against good teams their margin of victory is actually less than Oklahoma State’s. Against teams such as Rutgers, Akron and Maryland, however, they’ve won by an average of 42 points per game. The Cowboys, on the other hand, blew out TCU on Saturday, but played close games against Tulsa and Boise State in September, which helped frame the narrative that they are a team that has been more lucky than good.
We also tend to lean more heavily on offense than defense as a metric for success, and on that front, no one outdoes Ohio State. The Buckeyes lead the nation in offensive EPA. On defense, however, Ohio State is barely better than the FBS average. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, has one of the nation’s best defenses, holding every team it has faced to 24 points or fewer (Georgia is the only other team to do that). It’s the antithesis of the Mike Gundy teams we’ve come to know over the years, but that doesn’t make it any less talented.
None of this should serve as an indictment of Ohio State, which certainly appears to be a supremely talented team, perhaps one of the few that could truly challenge Georgia. But if we’re going to appreciate the Buckeyes’ ceiling we need to also consider the Cowboys’ accomplishments. Through 11 weeks only Georgia, Alabama and Notre Dame have won more games against FPI top-50 teams, and only Georgia has more wins against teams ranked at game time.
Let’s stop overlooking Oklahoma State. The Cowboys aren’t winning the way we might have expected, but they are winning, and at this point, they belong in the thick of the playoff conversation. They should be in serious consideration for the committee’s top four. — David Hale
Why isn’t Dave Clawson linked to more job openings?
The biggest surprise of the ACC season has been the 9-1 start by Wake Forest, which beat NC State 45-42 on Saturday. The Demon Deacons — who are a heartbreaking field goal against North Carolina away from being undefeated — are 6-0 in the Atlantic division and on a collision course to face Pitt in the ACC Championship Game.
Reshaping the culture of a team isn’t a foreign concept to Clawson, who has a reputation for building contenders at each of his previous stops. In 1999, he earned his first head job at Fordham, where he took the program from being winless to winners of the Patriot League and earning a berth in the 2002 FCS playoffs. He was excellent with Richmond and Bowling Green as well.
Now, at Wake Forest, he has infused plenty of energy into the city of Winston-Salem as the Demon Deacons are knocking on the doorstep of their first conference game appearance since 2006, when they defeated Georgia Tech 9-6 to collect their most wins in program history (11). A victory over Clemson next week would give them 10 victories and secure a chance to tie the single-season win total.
This begs the question: With so many programs searching for their next coach, why isn’t Clawson’s name being attached to more vacancies? Aside from a down pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Demon Deacons have totaled at least seven wins each year since 2016. — Jordan Reid
Where’s the love for Ole Miss’ defense?
The only time anyone dared to mention Ole Miss and defense in the same sentence a year ago was to talk about how bad the Rebels were on that side of the ball. Even earlier this year, after Ole Miss survived 52-51 against Arkansas, coach Lane Kiffin sounded anything but pumped about the Rebels’ defense.
“We stopped them on one play in the second half, so that’s a good thing,” said a shrugging Kiffin, whose Rebels gave up 676 total yards and 37 second-half points before the Hogs’ two-point conversion pass to win the game sailed incomplete.
Since then, Ole Miss’ defense has been one of the more improved units in the SEC, and the No. 10 Rebels (8-2, 4-2 SEC) are making a push to be the first Ole Miss team in school history to win 10 games in the regular season, with matchups remaining against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
In each of its past four wins, Ole Miss’ defense has given up 24 or fewer points, and it was the 31-26 victory at Tennessee the week after the Arkansas game that really showed the mettle of D.J. Durkin’s defense.
Kiffin told his players in the locker room after that game: “We’ve said for a long time when you go on the road in a hostile environment that you pack your run game and pack your defense. The defense showed up today and really won the game for us.”
Granted, nobody is comparing this Ole Miss defense to some of the better ones in the SEC, but the Rebels are tied for 66th nationally in scoring defense (26.2 points per game). That’s after finishing 117th nationally a year ago (38.3 PPG).
Kiffin told ESPN prior to the season that he would be pleased with a top-70 ranking in scoring defense, and Durkin & Co. have delivered. The Rebels have really helped themselves in turnover margin. They’re tied for second nationally at plus-12 and are second in the SEC with 19 forced turnovers.
Quarterback Matt Corral and the Ole Miss offense have still been the heart and soul of this team, but the defense has played well enough that the Rebels don’t feel as if they have to score 40-plus every game to win.
That’s a credit to Durkin and his guys for taking it on the chin a year ago (and taking some serious criticism) and coming back in Year 2 by doing their part to put the Rebels in a position to have a historic season. — Chris Low
Kansas looking to build on historic win
Before his team outlasted Texas in overtime on Saturday, Lance Leipold didn’t know Kansas had not won a Big 12 road game since 2008. The Jayhawks coach had only been part of this KU season and saw no value in looking back further.
What Leipold knew is a team that had accepted more than its share of change had been overdue for a win like Saturday’s. Leipold said the result can carry Kansas through the rest of the season and into 2022, when the team can realistically expect more.
“We made strides, we felt like we had, but it wasn’t showing up on the scoreboard,” Leipold told ESPN on Sunday. “We’re a long ways away from it right now, but if we ever want to play games in December, we have to play well in November. We’ve been selling that since the K-State game, and are going to keep emphasizing that.”
Kansas’ historic win featured plenty of surprising performances, none bigger than quarterback Jalon Daniels. The sophomore completed 70% of his passes for 202 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while adding 45 rush yards and a touchdown.
Daniels started six games as a true freshman in a hopeless situation last fall — he was only 17 years old for his first three starts. He only got the nod against Texas because of injuries to primary starter Jason Bean and reserve Miles Kendrick.
“He’s been through a lot, took a lot of hits last year, but he doesn’t flinch and he plays with extreme energy and confidence,” Leipold said. “That really sparked us. He can flush a bad play, but he didn’t have many, and statistically he did a lot of really good things for us.”
Leipold is the best coach to call Kansas home in quite some time. Those in coaching circles celebrated the hire Kansas made on the last day of April. Leipold understands player development and program development.
Kansas beat Texas with a third-string quarterback throwing to Jared Casey, a walk-on listed as a fullback who is actually Kansas’ fifth-string tight end (“because you don’t have many 5-9 tight ends in Power 5 football,” Leipold said). There are finally genuine reasons for KU fans to be excited.
“This group’s really accepted the change in the structure and the process that we’re expecting,” Leipold said. “We’ve been able to see a lot of differences in the small things that we’ve been doing, but it hasn’t correlated completely onto the field. To see them get this and complete a game and find a way to win it late, I’m really happy and proud.
“It also will help continue to build confidence within the program of what needs to be done on a daily and weekly basis.” — Adam Rittenberg
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