It’s late October and I’m still not sure what normal feels like. The Big Ten is back — as is the Mountain West — and college football feels more … complete. That’s true. It feels like the season is more of a reality. But there’s another reality, too. The reason the Big Ten started this late is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all signs points to our country heading in the wrong direction and straight into yet another wave of the virus. That backdrop combined with the Big Ten’s return has created a complex juxtaposition and it’s hard to have enough bandwidth for all of it.
But college football‘s more fulfilling schedule is still a good thing. The return of the Big Ten was eventful and being able to dive into all of it is what makes this so fun. While there were more games on Saturday than there have been at any other point in 2020, the Big Ten took front and center for this week’s overreactions. So let’s get to them.
The Trevor Lawrence-Justin Fields race is on
Indeed, college football’s season feels more complete with the Big Ten making its debut this weekend. But, really, the drama is in the much-anticipated Heisman race between Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. In a 52-17 throttling of Nebraska, Fields was nearly perfect: 20-of-21 passing for 271 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 54 yards and a score. Despite the blowout, Nebraska’s defense didn’t play terribly; Ohio State is just that gifted. Fields delivered on his much-anticipated first game back and it’s now officially time to add him to the Heisman fold with Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Fields and Lawrence are going to jockey for which one should be the top pick in next spring’s draft, too. Game on.
Forty-nine points is not the most No. 18 Michigan has scored under coach Jim Harbaugh, but it almost feels like it. Saturday’s 49-24 win over No. 21 Minnesota was the most fun watching a Wolverines offense in a good, long while. A lot of that has to do with quarterback Joe Milton. The Michigan coaching staff raved about Milton in the offseason and the initial returns look the big, athletic, strong-armed quarterback has the steak, not just sizzle. Milton was an efficient 15-of-22 passing for 225 yards and a touchdown while connecting with nine different pass-catchers. He also added 52 yards rushing and another score. There was nothing too flashy; offensive coordinator Josh Gattis did a nice job of keeping everything within reach for Milton. There were plenty of moving pockets and opportunities for Milton to show off his athleticism. There were also moments of clear brilliance. Milton would make a “wow” throw or show off deceptive speed for a player his size. He’s a weapon, even if Michigan didn’t completely unleash him. There’s a missing piece component to his game that could take Michigan to another level — which is important given the complaints about the Wolverines’ stale offenses of the past.
Want more college football in your life? Listen below and subscribe to the Cover 3 College Football podcast for top-notch insight and analysis beyond the gridiron.
James Franklin’s late-game decisions were costly
No. 8 Penn State’s 36-35 overtime loss to Indiana can’t be pinned on any one thing, but there were a lot of late-game decisions from coach James Franklin that will be parsed through in the post mortem. A few things stood out. First was Devyn Ford’s 14-yard touchdown to go up 27-20 with 1:42 remaining. Indiana clearly let Ford score to allow itself one final offensive possession. Ford, doing what any player would do in that situation, ran into the end zone. Indiana had just one timeout at the time, so Penn State could have run out the clock. Franklin said afterward he talked to his team about not scoring, but even with the Ford touchdown, Penn State should have gone for two with the intention of making it a nine-point game instead of an eight-point game. Finally, after being gifted a bizarre squib kick from Indiana with 22 seconds left, Penn State opted to try a 57-yard field goal, which fell just short, instead of attempting one more play to get the ball just a little closer.
Penn State played poorly for most of the game, so that it was even in a position to win in the end was fortunate. But all of those aforementioned late-game decisions ended up being costly. Franklin’s a great coach, but he has a poor reputation in late-game situations. That was on display against the Hoosiers.
It was understandable to have reservations about the No. 6 Cowboys’ statistically stingy defense because their first three games were against Tulsa, West Virginia and Kansas. After a 24-21 win over No. 17 Iowa State, though, there’s far less doubt. Yes, Cyclones running back Breece Hall broke off a couple of big runs, but outside of those, Iowa State’s run game was generally ineffective. Quarterback Brock Purdy had defenders in his face all day (three sacks, four QB hurries) while Oklahoma State played tight coverage on the back end. Everything for Iowa State’s offense was difficult. So often Oklahoma State’s offense gets the limelight, but this defense is salty and good enough to get the Pokes to the Big 12 Championship Game.
The time to buy on the Sooners was somewhere right after the Red River Showdown with Texas. Despite the wild four-overtime game, Oklahoma turned a corner in a few key areas. They developed a pass rush, which continued in Saturday’s 33-14 win over TCU. Oklahoma’s defensive front had three sacks and eight tackles for loss. The ground game is also getting established with TJ Pledger emerging as RB1 with 122 yards. Quarterback Spencer Rattler is taking better care of the football, and while the offense isn’t as purely explosive as it has been in recent years, they are finding a more methodical identity. After a slow start, Oklahoma is finding itself.
Cincinnati is a favorite for a New Year’s Six bowl
This is a good year for Group of Five football. BYU is good. Coastal Carolina is undefeated and very fun. You can add Cincinnati to that short list as well. The No. 9 Bearcats ripped off an impressive victory at No. 16 SMU 42-13. Quarterback Desmond Ridder accounted for 307 total yards and four touchdowns, including a whopping 179 yards rushing on just eight carries. The defense continued to play well, too, though SMU hurt itself with dropped passes. The Bearcats’ toughest games are ahead of them, including matchups against Memphis, Houston and UCF. But this looks like a complete team capable of making an AAC title game run, and will be in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
Mel Tucker has inherited a massive hole
Oh, boy. It wasn’t any secret that Michigan State was in full rebuild mode after Mark Dantonio resigned, but the 38-27 loss to Rutgers — ending a 21-game Big Ten losing streak for the Scarlet Knights — confirms things are worse than they appeared. The cupboard is bare. The offensive line can’t block, the defense is slow and everything’s sloppy. The Spartans won’t turn it over seven times every week, but they also won’t get a more winnable game than they had today. Tucker is in a massive hole because he was hired late and then had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. That put him so far behind the 8-ball that this isn’t even a Year 0. It’s a Year -1.