Midseason report: Best, worst of college football’s 1st half
The college football season is only half over and already four FBS coaches have been fired, one was suspended for three games and another future Hall of Famer has resigned.
Four preseason top-10 teams are no longer ranked. Injuries to key players have been rampant. Scoring is up – as long as Wake Forest is not involved.
Michigan and Florida are back. Texas is not – yet.
Leonard Fournette has exceeded his hype. Jeremy Johnson has not lived up to his.
Ohio State’s quarterback competition is still going.
The good and the bad, awesome and awful, of the first seven weeks of the season:
Most surprising undefeated team: No. 12 Iowa.
Sure, the schedule has set up nicely for Iowa’s 7-0 start, but only the most optimistic Hawkeyes fans believed that their team would be one upset in the Big Ten title game away from the College Football Playoff. Ferentz forever!
Most disappointing team: Georgia Tech.
Auburn, USC, Georgia and Oregon have slid from top 10 to out of the rankings. Arkansas and Tennessee went from programs on the rise to teams scrambling to get bowl eligible. The Yellow Jackets (2-5), though, have totally tanked. After winning 11 games last season, Georgia Tech has lost five straight, four in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Best coaching job (head coach): Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Whittingham lost both his offensive and defensive coordinators after last season and not only has there been no drop-off but the Utes have improved. They just do not beat themselves. Utah is third in the nation in turnover margin at plus-12 and ninth in fewest penalties per game at 4.5.
Best coaching job (coordinator): Brent Venables, Clemson.
Much of the ferocious defense the Tigers fielded last season is playing in the NFL this season. Despite the departures, inexperience and less-than-ideal depth, Venables’ guys rank 13th in the nation at 4.41 yards allowed per play and fourth in tackles for loss at 9.33 per game.
Best turnaround by a first-year coach not named Jim: Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh.
Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) and Jim McElwain (Florida) have received much-deserved praise for quickly getting the Wolverines and Gators back into the national conversation, but how about a little love for the former Michigan State defensive coordinator? The 25th-ranked Panthers (5-1) have almost matched last season’s win total even though star running back James Conner (knee) was lost for the season in the opener.
Breakout player (offense): Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford.
The sophomore and son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey was expected to be versatile and important cog in the Stanford offense, but he has emerged as its best player. He is third in the nation in yards from scrimmage (169.3 per game) behind only LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. More on those two later.
Breakout player (defense): Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State.
The former walk-on and first-year starter leads the nation with 11 1/2 sacks while doing his best J.J. Watt impersonation.
Breakdown player: Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn.
Maybe it’s not fair to Johnson, but coach Gus Malzahn did nothing to tamp down the hype entering Johnson’s first season as the Tigers’ No. 1 quarterback. Johnson has thrown six interceptions and was benched for redshirt freshman Sean White after three starts.
Best injury replacement: DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame.
So many good players have gone down, but none had more pressure than Kizer, the redshirt freshman who stepped in when Malik Zaire broke an ankle in the second week of the season. Kizer threw a last-minute, game-winning TD pass in his first game and ranks 16th in the nation in passer rating (156.91) behind Cal star Jared Goff and ahead of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
Player who most deserves a hug: Blake O’Neill, P, Michigan.
Mistakes happen. O’Neill made a big one. But there has never been a game decided by one player and one play.
Best footballing: Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge vs. Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis.
The individual matchup of two of the best in the country at their positions was a joy to watch. The best moment came in the fourth quarter. Connor Cook made a beautiful back-shoulder throw down the sideline. Lewis had excellent coverage. Burbidge came back and made a great catch. If football can be art, that play should hang in the Met.
Worst footballing: Wake Forest vs. Boston College.
Wake won 3-0 with five first downs but the last two minutes turned into a Shakespearean-level tragicomedy. BC fumbled the ball away in position to at least kick a tying field. The Demon Deacons fumbled the ball back at their 11 trying to run out the clock. BC took over with 56 seconds left, ran three plays and ran out of time at the 1. No better case could be made for soccer replacing football as America’s favorite sport.
Worst firing: North Texas.
There is no great way to fire somebody.
Illinois got rid of Tim Beckman before the season even started. Maryland fired Randy Edsall a day after the Terps lost to Ohio State. Southern California terminated Steve Sarkisian after his personal issues became too much to manage.
None was as bad as the way North Texas fired Dan McCarney, who was canned right after the Mean Green were hammered on homecoming 66-7 by FCS Portland State. It was clear even going into the game that the end was approaching for McCarney, but athletic director Rick Villareal did not even let the coach hold a postgame news conference. McCarney, who just two seasons ago won a bowl game at North Texas, deserved better.
Coaches on hot seat
Following-up a suspension for violating school policy on contacting faculty by missing out on the postseason would likely put Rutgers coach Kyle Flood in a dicey spot.
Others who likely need good finishes to keep their jobs (alphabetical order).
Al Golden, Miami
Darrell Hazell, Purdue
Mike London, Virginia
Scott Shafer, Syracuse
Coaches who could be joining Steve Spurrier in retirement
Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech. The future Hall of Fame coach won’t be fired, but it is looking more and more as if there will be some potentially difficult conversations in Blacksburg between Beamer and athletic director Whit Babcock.
George O’Leary, UCF. Probably heading for retirement regardless of how his winless team finishes.
Expect to hear these coaches from Group of Five schools mentioned a lot when searches start heating up (alphabetical order).
Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky
P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Justin Fuente, Memphis
Matt Campbell, Toledo
Matt Rhule, Temple
Matt Wells, Utah State
Half-way Heisman Trophy
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
2. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Top four teams right now (not that important)
4. Ohio State
Projecting the playoff (much more important)
1. Ohio State
4. Notre Dame
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP