The word “midseason” is almost useless this year in college football. Of the 127 teams endeavoring to play FBS football this fall, only 12 have played half of their intended schedule (13 if you include UMass having played its only scheduled game to this point), while another 50 have yet to get started.
Still, we are indeed at a sort of midpoint: seven weeks down, eight to go to before conference championship games. As the Big Ten and other conferences get underway, we might forget some of the odder moments of this, the oddest first half of a season ever. So let’s commemorate what has happened thus far as we look toward what happens next.
Things that actually happened in the first seven weeks of the season
K.J. Costello, Heisman front-runner. In Mike Leach’s first game as Mississippi State coach, Costello utterly torched LSU for 623 yards and five touchdowns on 60 passes in a 44-34 upset win. In the three games since, all losses, Costello has thrown 136 times for 644 yards, MSU’s offense has scored a total of 21 points, and Costello has gotten benched in favor of freshman Will Rogers. Oh yeah, and LSU also got torched for 586 yards and 45 points in a loss to Missouri.
Coastal Carolina and Central Arkansas, ESPN darlings. A thinner schedule of early-season games offered brand-building opportunities for smaller schools who could take advantage (and were willing to put up with obvious risks). Central Arkansas crafted an “anyone, anywhere” brand by setting up a 10-game schedule that included three FBS opponents, plus the season opener against Austin Peay and the Trey Lance Showcase Game against North Dakota State.
Coastal, meanwhile, has won twice on ESPN in prime time — against Campbell on a Friday night in mid-September and against Louisiana last Wednesday. The Chanticleers also cleaned Kansas’ clock on Fox Sports 1 and whipped Arkansas State on ESPN2, and they are unbeaten and ranked for the first time ever.
Tennessee held the longest winning streak in the country. At halftime in Week 6, the Volunteers were winners of eight games in a row — they hadn’t lost in nearly a full calendar year — and held a 21-17 lead over Georgia in Athens. In the six quarters that followed, they got outscored 61-7. Georgia surged past them, then they lost at home to Kentucky for the first time in 36 years.
The opponentless Houston Cougars. When the season is over, Houston will have played a run-of-the-mill nine games or so, with maybe a bowl game of some sort at the end as well. But never forget the utter ridiculousness the Coogs endured while trying to get on the field for the first time. Rice, Memphis, Baylor and North Texas all canceled or postponed. Houston finally kicked off on Oct. 8 against Tulane and almost immediately gave up a pair of defensive touchdowns before settling down and winning by 18.
The best teams of the first seven weeks
Preseason projections are part of my SP+ ratings for a reason: It makes them far more predictive. Priors are your friend, and I use them. But if I were deriving SP+ rankings only from what has happened so far in 2020, with no preseason assumptions of any kind, here’s your top 10:
5. Air Force
6. Oklahoma State
9. North Carolina
10. Notre Dame
Your top five offenses: Florida, Alabama, Virginia Tech, Memphis, BYU.
Your top five defenses: Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Marshall, Tulsa.
Like I said, that list probably wouldn’t make for great predictions going forward. But it’s a good way to commemorate just how incredibly some of these units have played to date.
Here’s whom I would vote for in all major college football awards if the ballots were due today, sprinkling in a few sleepers who deserve mentions.
Heisman/Maxwell/Walter Camp (best player)
Lawrence has done nothing to tamp down even an ounce of the “sure-fire No. 1 NFL draft pick” hype this fall. Meanwhile, all Jones has done is average nearly 400 passing yards per game with a nearly perfect Total QBR rating. It’s not too late for a player like Fields or Slovis to get involved in this race, but the bar is absurdly high.
Davey O’Brien (best quarterback)
1. Lawrence (Clemson)
2. Jones (Alabama)
3. Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina)
Late-arriving threats: Fields, Slovis
I want to call attention to what McCall has done so far. In a pretty run-heavy offense, he’s completed 68% of his passes at 15.8 yards per completion, with a 197.0 passer rating for the unbeaten Chants. Oh yeah, and he’s a redshirt freshman.
Doak Walker (best running back)
1. Etienne (Clemson)
2. Khalil Herbert (Virginia Tech)
3. Tyler Allgeier (BYU)
Late-arriving threats: Trey Sermon (Ohio State), Journey Brown (Penn State), CJ Verdell (Oregon), [insert Wisconsin running back here] (Wisconsin), Jaret Patterson (Buffalo)
Etienne’s versatility has been downright unfair this season, and Herbert has been an unforeseen catalyst in Blacksburg, but the competition is about to get a lot stiffer. The Big Ten does not lack for backs.
Biletnikoff (best receiver)
1. Jaylen Waddle (Alabama)
2. Elijah Moore (Ole Miss)
3. Reggie Roberson Jr. (SMU)
Late-arriving threats: Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Rondale Moore (Purdue), Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), Chris Olave (Ohio State), Khalil Shakir (Boise State)
Roberson’s inclusion, by the way, is a nod to another injury-shortened season. In his past 13 complete games, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,423 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he’s seen two consecutive seasons cut short.
Mackey (best tight end)
The tight end position is becoming a bigger position for innovation as offenses further try to create mismatches and take advantage of smaller, faster college football defenses. Pitts, Dykes and Yeboah have all enjoyed breakout performances, averaging nearly 100 yards and two touchdowns per game among them.
Outland (best interior lineman)
1. Ben Cleveland (Georgia)
2. Nico Ezidore (Texas State)
3. Clark Barrington (BYU)
Late-arriving threats: Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Cole Van Lanen (Wisconsin), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Nolan Laufenberg (Air Force)
I used three different criteria to choose my three nominees so far: the guy most impressive to my eyes (Cleveland), the most disruptive defensive tackle in the country so far (Ezidore has eight tackles for loss) and a guy on a great line who, per Sports Info Solutions data, hasn’t missed a block so far this season (Barrington).
Lawrence Taylor (best defensive end)
Yes, I’m making this award up, but yes, a Best DE award should exist by this point.
1. Patrick Jones II (Pitt)
2. Quincy Roche (Miami)
3. Victor Dimukeje (Duke)
Late-arriving threats: Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon), Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), Shaka Toney (Penn State), Kwity Paye (Michigan)
The ACC has owned the edge rusher category so far this season — Pitt has two who could have made the top three. But we’ll see if Thibodeaux or a phalanx of Big Ten pass-rushers can crack the list.
Butkus (best linebacker)
1. Azeez Ojulari (Georgia)
2. Zaven Collins (Tulsa)
3. Max Richardson (Boston College)
Late-arriving threats: Hamilcar Rashed Jr. (Oregon State), Paddy Fisher (Northwestern), Devin Lloyd (Utah), James Patterson (Buffalo)
Ojulari is a stick of dynamite on every third down Georgia opponents face, and it feels as though Collins was in the backfield on every play of both games Tulsa has played so far.
Thorpe (best defensive back)
1. Patrick Surtain II (Alabama)
2. Eric Stokes (Georgia)
3. Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State)
Late-arriving threats: Elijah Molden (Washington), Tiawan Mullen (Indiana), Mykael Wright (Oregon), Jalen Walker (Boise State)
Whatever problems Alabama’s defense has, Surtain isn’t the cause of them. The bar is high here, but while Washington lost prime defensive talent to opt-outs, Molden’s return gives the Huskies heft in pass defense.
Bednarik/Bronko Nagurski (best defensive player)
Late-arriving threats: Thibodeaux, Hutchinson, Molden
Despite what Alabama did to Georgia’s defense, the Dawgs likely have the top D in the country. Therefore a Dawg gets to lead the way.
Meanwhile, I’m realizing that I didn’t list a single Clemson defender above even though the Tigers probably have by far the second-best D. That says a little bit about the by-committee approach they’ve gotten to employ in blowouts this season and a little about their utterly absurd depth. They are terrifying, and I couldn’t pick out their top defender if you made me.
Groza (best place-kicker)
We live in boom times for kickers, friends. Amid all the special-teams disasters, we’ve already seen five field goals of 54-plus yards sail through the uprights, including one each from the three I listed above.
Ray Guy (best punter)
We must be in boom times for punters, too, because two guys have outpaced Kentucky’s cannon-legged Duffy so far. Camarda is averaging an unreal 50.7 yards per kick.
Paul Hornung (most versatile player)
You might as well call this the Kenny Gainwell Award because I leaned on a very specific player type for this one: running backs who are scary as hell catching the ball. Along with tight ends, these types of players are a bit of a matchups cheat code at the moment.
Coach of the year
1. Kalani Sitake (BYU)
2. Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech)
3. Luke Fickell (Cincinnati)
After a disappointing 7-6 record last season, Sitake’s Cougars have been on an outright rampage in 2020, while Fuente’s Hokies are 3-1 despite massive issues with positive coronavirus tests that have hit even the quarterback position.
Broyles (best assistant coach)
1. Barry Odom (Arkansas)
2. Steve Sarkisian (Alabama)
3. Marcus Freeman (Cincinnati)
As I referenced on Sunday, SP+ isn’t as high on Arkansas as one might have expected so far — it’s hard to thrive long term on forcing perfectly timed turnovers and making fourth-down stops. But after averaging a defensive SP+ ranking of 73rd over the past five years, Odom’s Hogs are nearly in the top 50 already. That says something, as does the extreme buy-in you see from every player on that Arkansas two-deep. He deserves all the praise he’s gotten so far.
Closing thoughts on Alabama-Georgia
After writing what felt like one million words on it last week, I figured I should circle back and share some postgame thoughts on what was, rankingswise, the biggest game of the season to date: Alabama’s 41-24 victory over Georgia on Saturday.
1. Mac rediscovered his footwork
Sixty minutes is a long time, and not only because a 60-minute college football game commonly lasts 3½ hours or more. It offers good coaches plenty of times to make adjustments, and it gives important players plenty of time to either find, or lose, the plot.
Stetson Bennett‘s last touchdown pass of the evening, a 5-yard strike to Jermaine Burton with 23 seconds left in the first half to give Georgia a 24-17 lead, came with some red flags. He had already sailed three poor passes on the drive, but he had made up for it with a huge third-and-7 completion to George Pickens and the third-and-goal strike to Burton. He had begun to falter in the moment, but it appeared he had gathered himself.
At the moment Burton came down with the ball, Georgia led, and Bennett’s stat line was quite comparable to that of Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Passing stats, first 29:37 of the game:
Bennett: 12-for-20 for 165 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and one sack
Jones: 13-for-17 for 184 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and two sacks
Adjusted net yards per pass (ANY/A, which includes sacks, plus a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions): Bennett 7.0, Jones 7.0
Then came the rest of the game.
Passing stats, last 30:23:
Bennett: 6-for-20 for 104 yards, two interceptions and a sack
Jones: 9-for-13 for 206 yards, two touchdowns and a sack
ANY/A: Jones 17.1, Bennett 0.6
Jones was spooked and harried by Georgia’s pass rush early in the game. Anytime the pocket began to crumble a bit around him, he lost his footwork and rushed throws. He was still able to complete passes because he’s got a very good arm and even better receivers, but he wasn’t stepping confidently into passes, especially on third down. But he completed a couple of passes to get Alabama into field goal range at the end of the first half, then ignited in the second, just as Bennett was falling out of sorts on the other side of the ball. You could say that after a bit of a delay, Jones met the moment, while the moment met Bennett.
2. Kirby Smart has one hell of a decision to make now
Bennett was never supposed to be Georgia’s starting quarterback this season. First, it appeared it would be Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, who ended up opting out for the season instead. Then we assumed it would be USC transfer JT Daniels, but he wasn’t cleared to play right away after a knee injury. In their absence, the job went to redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, who was a deer in headlights in the first half against Arkansas. Bennett, the walk-on turned junior college prospect turned starter, came in for Mathis and did what was asked of him with minimal mistakes.
In the marquee game of the young season, however, the mistakes came. He threw three picks and took two sacks, and while this obviously wasn’t all Bennett’s fault, Georgia was shut out in the second half of the game.
Bulldogs coach Smart now has to deal with the ultimate “ceiling vs. floor” debate. Against teams worse than Alabama, Bennett was able to come in and play pretty straightforward ball and, with help from an awesome special-teams unit, make sure to give an awesome defense good field position. He could continue to do that the rest of the season — Florida is the only remaining opponent in the SP+ top 20, and he could easily lead Georgia to a 9-1 record. But Bama would likely await in the SEC championship game, and there’s no real reason to think that Bennett will fare any better the second time. We might be just about done with the days of game-manager level quarterbacks leading teams to a national title, and Smart might have to take a risk on a higher-ceiling, lower-floor player, be it Daniels or Mathis (probably Daniels), if he wants to get from 9-1 to 10-1 and reach the College Football Playoff.
Projecting the Mountain West
My 2020 college football series will finally come to an end this week with previews of the Big Ten East and West divisions, but that’s not the only conference making its season debut this weekend. Out West, the Mountain West also gets rolling with six games on Saturday evening: three kicking off between 7 and 8 p.m. ET and another three between 9 and 10:30. I wrote a pair of MWC previews a decade ago in April — West division, Mountain division — and while obviously the information in there is a bit outdated (among other things, there won’t be divisional champions, and the conference title game will pit the two teams with the best conference records), I wanted to at least share updated SP+ projections before things got started.
A quick note: While each team has eight games scheduled, not every team has eight conference games. Boise State and San Diego State both play BYU, while Air Force has already played Navy and will also play Army. It’s weird, I know. But you can get a pretty clear idea of the pecking order from simply using average projected wins, and that’s what I’m going to do.
SP+ No. 35 Boise State: 6.0 average wins (34% chance of finishing with 0-1 losses)
No. 59 Air Force: 5.3 (15%)
No. 75 San Diego State: 4.7 (7%)
No. 83 Colorado State: 4.3 (4%)
No. 103 Fresno State: 4.2 (5%)
No. 90 Wyoming: 4.2 (4%)
No. 98 Hawai’i: 4.1 (3%)
No. 107 Nevada: 3.9 (3%)
No. 106 San Jose State: 3.6 (1%)
No. 104 Utah State: 3.4 (1%)
No. 122 New Mexico: 2.2 (0%)
No. 123 UNLV: 1.9 (0%)
Boise State is a clear favorite to reach the title game, while Air Force appears to have a leg up on the field for the second spot. But if either team slips, there’s a humongous crowd of teams waiting to pounce.