Forward Pass: OSU has its QB, but will playoff committee buy Buckeyes as nation’s best?
College football wouldn’t be college football without our week-to-week knee-jerk reactions, and through eight games Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has heard just about all of them. Depending on the week, he found himself coaching a team that was starting the wrong quarterback, or had a problem on its offensive line, or had a problem with its receiving corps, or couldn’t figure out its play-calling system, or was giving up too many big plays. … you name the critique.
Yet here we are, two-thirds of the way through its schedule, and the nation’s No. 1 team sits exactly where it started the year. The Buckeyes have yet to lose a game and have now won their last three by scores of 49-28 (Maryland), 38-10 (Penn State) and 49-7 (at Rutgers).
“I’ve been down this road before where the expectation level is over the top,” Meyer — referencing his 2009 Florida team — told FOX Sports on Sunday. “All I care about is getting better each week. We haven’t played perfectly, but not a lot of people out there have.”
He’s right about that. Next week, the College Football Playoff selection committee will convene for the first time to rank a 2015 field littered with flawed teams. But like Ohio State, many of those same teams just keep winning.
Even with Florida State (against Georgia Tech) and Utah (against USC) suffering their first losses Saturday, FBS still boasts 12 undefeated teams, including eight among the Power 5 conferences. Both are historically high numbers. I looked back at every season since the start of the BCS in 1998 and found no instance of this many perfect teams still standing with six weeks left to play. (In 2002 and ’12 there were seven among the six BCS AQ conferences.)
Perhaps we can attribute some of this phenomenon to the happenstance of scheduling. Most of the combined six undefeated teams in the Big 12 (Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State) and Big Ten (Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa) play backloaded schedules. In total, there are six games remaining between two currently undefeated teams, with the potential for two more in conference championship games.
Or, we can give credit where credit’s due. Despite injuries, horrendous weather and the inherent inconsistency of 18-to-22-year-olds, four of the top five teams in the preseason AP poll – Ohio State, TCU, Baylor and Michigan State – have yet to lose. Neither has preseason Top 15 teams Clemson or LSU, Iowa and Oklahoma State, as well as Memphis, Houston, Temple and Toledo.
In the Buckeyes’ case, that’s despite the fact Meyer found himself changing his starting quarterback seven games into the season – six too late for many fans critical of the oft-underperforming Cardale Jones. In his first start Saturday, J.T. Barrett looked every bit a 2014 Heisman Top 5 finisher in shredding the Scarlet Knights for 223 yards passing, 101 yards rushing and five total touchdowns.
Meyer said Barrett’s recovery from last year’s season-ending ankle injury, which sidelined him during spring practice, slowed his progress.
“People forget, [Barrett] is only a [third-year] sophomore. You’re talking about a guy that played one season,” said Meyer. “He was not performing this way in training camp. … The last three weeks have been fantastic.”
A storyline that began brewing way back last December – how would Meyer manage a stable of three accomplished quarterbacks – proved more vexing at times than even he imagined. Braxton Miller’s transition to receiver over the summer helped whittle the field and gave the Buckeyes’ offense another weapon (he had three touches for 71 yards Saturday) but made it no easier to tell either Jones or Barrett to wear a headset.
“It was not easy,” Meyer conceded. “I’d have people ask me questions and I’d be more politically correct in my answers than I’d like to, but you’re talking about two people who are very important to our program. It’s more complicated than any situation I’ve been in with quarterbacks.
“But it’s worked out fine. We’re 8-0.”
Between the finally settled quarterback position, star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s week-in, week-out productivity (he’s had 100-plus yards every game) and a loaded defense’s continued improvement, the Buckeyes look closer to a finished product.
But are they still the best team in the country? Meyer, unsurprisingly, deflected the question, and the fact is nobody knows. Ohio State does not yet have a statement win like LSU’s over a then 6-0 Florida team or Clemson’s over a now 6-1 Notre Dame team. It has not blown out every team it’s played like Baylor has, beaten three six-win foes like Iowa has or overcome a Week 1 road loss only to steamroll everyone it’s played since like Stanford has.
And the landscape’s not likely to change much this week, what with four of those eight Power 5 undefeated teams on a bye. Which means the committee will have its work cut out Nov. 3. Last season, chairman Jeff Long declared after the first rankings that Mississippi State and Florida State – already the only undefeated Power 5 teams left – were the “clear-cut” top two teams.
This season, about the only thing that’s clear-cut is that Ohio State has found its quarterback.
WE’RE WATCHING WHO THIS WEEKEND?
Amidst an otherwise light slate of games this week, the college football world turns its attention to a massive game at … Temple.
Yep, you read that right.
The 21st-ranked Owls, 7-0 for the first time in school history, host No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1) in a nationally televised primetime showdown. That’s not a sentence I ever would have imagined a decade ago when Temple football was so dilapidated no conference would touch it.
Current Owls coach and former Penn State linebacker Matt Rhule, 40, first saw the program at its absolute low point. In 2006 he served as an assistant under Al Golden during a 1-11 season as an independent. Temple joined the MAC a year later and began a gradual climb, first under Golden, then Steve Addazio and, since 2013, Rhule, who left for just one season with the New York Giants.
Today, Temple is bowl-eligible for the fifth time in seven seasons, beat Penn State, now 6-2, to start the year and has its sights set on an American conference championship – which would be its first in any league. In the meantime, there’s the matter of a little showcase non-conference game this weekend against a College Football Playoff contender.
“People say to me, ‘You’re doing a good job, that’s such a tough job,” Rhule told FOX Sports. “This is a great job. Al Golden won, Steve Addazio won. Hopefully for the university [Saturday] gives attention to our school. I want people to see what’s going on here at Temple.”
What’s going on is the Owls are going completely against the grain of most non-power teams and winning with a 1960s-era style of football. Led by stud LB Tyler Matakevich and his national-best 420 career tackles, Temple wins with defense, a power rushing attack led by Jahad Thomas (117.4 yards per game) and impactful special teams. Last Thursday at East Carolina, Temple trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter before forcing a fumble and blocking two punts. QB P.J. Walker hit on a couple long throws, and the Owls pulled away 24-14.
“We’re not a flashy team that gets up on people and blows them them out; this is just who we are,” said Rhule. “We’re sort of an old-school, throwback type team. It fits us, and it fits Philadelphia.”
On Saturday, the Owls will face a talented Notre Dame team that Rhule says “looks like a video game” when he watches the tape. That blue-collar defense will have to slow down the likes of RB C.J. Prosise and WR Will Fuller. Thomas will try to run on DT Sheldon Day and LB Jaylon Smith. Frankly, it may be a mismatch.
But the fact that millions of viewers will be tuning in to watch a Temple football game is itself a major victory for the long-disregarded program. And if the Owls pull the upset, their story will carry far beyond one Saturday.
EXPECT A CULTURE CHANGE AT MIAMI
Temple’s Rhule will undoubtedly be a hot name on the coaching carousel this winter, but one of his former bosses may be a cautionary tale when it comes to greener grass.
Miami’s humiliating 58-0 home loss Saturday to Clemson – the most lopsided of any in school history – sealed the fate of embattled fifth-year coach Golden, whom the school dismissed Sunday. Golden, whose team suffered 11 double-digit losses over its last 26 games, engendered a level of backlash far uglier than the usual variety, from weekly stadium flyovers to angry tweets from prominent ex-’Canes like Warren Sapp.
On the one hand, it’s puzzling that Golden, groomed for a big-time job first as a Joe Paterno protégé, later as a turnaround artist at Temple, failed so miserably at Miami. He was not considered a risky hire by any means, and though the NCAA/Nevin Shapiro investigation dropped before he even coached a game, he handled that setback about as well as could be expected.
On the other hand, Golden, in his customary sideline shirt and tie, often looked out of place at “The U,” a program whose core identity during its rise to prominence in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was definitively anti-establishment. Golden could very well turn around and be a perfectly successful coach at tony Virginia, another former employer. At Miami, he never got a handle on the all-important South Florida recruiting scene.
As talk increasingly turns to potential replacements, you’ll inevitably hear and read some that say Miami “just isn’t that good a job anymore.” It’s pure baloney.
Yes, it’s far from ideal that the ’Canes play in an NFL stadium far from campus, and no, the school likely can’t afford to pay its next coach $4 million. But Miami remains highly attractive for all the reasons Golden came there to begin with. First and foremost, you can get players. All those talented Broward and Dade County kids still grow up hoping to play for The U, but they’re only going to sign on with a coach they believe in. The program’s ridiculous NFL pipeline sells itself.
Because of the Shapiro scandal, Golden spent the first part of his tenure trying to distance the program from its controversial past. The next coach, on the other hand, will assuredly embrace that culture.
So don’t overthink this, Miami. Hire Mario Cristobal, the former ’Canes offensive lineman and assistant, a guy who rescued FIU from the ashes before his bizarre ouster in 2012 and now is an ace South Florida recruiter for Alabama. You can be certain he still considers it a “good job.”
THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST
Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.
I drew quite the collective ire from TCU fans on Sunday when I removed the Horned Frogs from my latest Top 10 upon realizing that, quite frankly, they haven’t done anything yet to belong there. But those rankings are my committee-like evaluation of a team’s body of work so far. Those same fans should be delighted to see I’m still projecting TCU to win the Big 12.
Unfortunately for both TCU and Baylor, though, I no longer have either in my projected playoff field, instead elevating presumed Pac-12 champ Stanford. Right now I don’t see the torrid Cardinal losing another conference game, and their Nov. 28 clash with Notre Dame may well be a de facto quarterfinal. That move in turn bumped Utah from the Fiesta up to the Rose despite Saturday’s USC loss.
I also bumped up LSU, which you may astutely deduce means that as of now I’m predicting the Tigers to win at Alabama in two weeks. And since they both have a bye this week I’m admittedly painting myself in a corner. I honestly have no idea who will win that game, but Tide QB Jake Coker continues to concern me after a lackluster performance Saturday at home against 3-3 Tennessee.
I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …
Samaje Perine. Lo and behold, the Sooners’ record-setting runner does still hold a spot in OU’s Air Raid offense. The sophomore, who came in averaging just 70 yards per game, ran for a season-high 201 and four TDs against Texas Tech.
Jarrett Stidham. Baylor’s freshman QB will likely get the call Nov. 5 at Kansas State after Seth Russell suffered a fractured bone in his neck in Saturday’s win over Iowa State. Stidham is a cool 24-of-28 for 331 yards and six TDs so far.
Texas. If you haven’t noticed, the ‘Horns have steadied the ship since their 1-4 start, beating Oklahoma and Kansas State. Win the next two against Iowa State and Kansas and Charlie Strong’s team will be on the cusp of bowl eligibility.
Auburn. If you haven’t noticed, the SEC’s preseason title pick is dead last in the SEC West, falling to 1-3 with a four-overtime loss to Arkansas. Gus Malzahn’s team needs two more wins to get bowl eligible, and Idaho is the only sure thing.
The ACC Coastal. This race is getting good. Pittsburgh, Duke and North Carolina are all 6-1 and undefeated in conference play. The Tar Heels may know their fate soon; they visit Pitt on Thursday and host the Blue Devils a week from Saturday.
THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR
Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield. With a 31-13 rout of rival Georgia Southern, the Mountaineers, which moved up to FBS just last year, improved to 6-1. They’ve now won nine straight Sun Belt contests dating to last season.
THIS WEEK’S COACH (NO LONGER) ON THE HOT SEAT
UCF’s George O’Leary. After plummeting from back-to-back conference titles to 0-8 so far this season, O’Leary abruptly retired Sunday. The Knights’ implosion makes more sense now that we know he first tried to check out two years ago.
HEARTS GO OUT TO OKLAHOMA STATE
I cannot even begin to fathom the heartbreak at Oklahoma State right now as it reels from yet another senseless tragedy. Saturday’s Homecoming parade turned to horror when authorities said a woman plowed her car into the crowd, killing four people – including a 2-year-old. Several others were critically injured. Police on Sunday charged the driver, Adacia Chambers, with four counts of second-degree murder.
This is the same community that’s already had to mourn two fatal plane crashes involving members of its athletic community since 2001.
Oklahoma State played its game against Kansas on Saturday, after which an emotional Mike Gundy heard few questions about football.
“… There are no words that can even express a situation like this,” he said. “There’s just nothing you can say. It just has to be the absolute worst thing that can happen to a family and loved ones.”
Keep the Oklahoma State community in your thoughts this week.
ON TO NEXT WEEKEND
With five of the AP top 7 on byes, it’s another light week.
Three games we’re most excited for:
–No. 9 Notre Dame at No. 21 Temple (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET): It’s the first of two straight trips to Pennsylvania for the Irish, which visit 6-1 Pittsburgh next week. QB DeShone Kizer needs a better road outing than his trip to Clemson.
–No. 11 Florida vs. Georgia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET): It’s the unofficial SEC East championship game – everyone else already has three league losses. Can Dawgs QB Greyson Lambert be productive against a stout Florida defense?
–No. 8 Stanford at Washington State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET): It’s the biggest game in Pullman since … 2003ish? The Cardinal will likely light up the Wazzu defense, but Cougs QB Luke Falk presents a challenge for Stanford.
Three games you shouldn’t miss:
–North Carolina at No. 23 Pittsburgh (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET): If not for a strange season-opening loss to South Carolina, the Tar Heels would be undefeated. If not for an Iowa walk-off 57-yard field goal, so, too, would the Panthers.
–USC at Cal (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET): Cody Kessler and the rejuvenated Trojans will present problems for Cal’s horrendous defense. Bears QB Jared Goff is itching for a big game after nightmares against Utah and UCLA.
–No. 3 Clemson at NC State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET): The Tigers have moved into the Top 5 and now visit a 5-2 Wolfpack team that’s … not nearly as good as that record indicates. But hey, there’s always a chance.
One under-the-radar gem:
–Tennessee at Kentucky (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET): All the pressure is on the 3-4 Vols, which visit a 4-3 Kentucky team that their fans expect them to beat. Butch Jones would be advised to put it away before the fourth quarter.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.