It has been hard to find silver linings in 2020, a year when little has felt normal and too many of the things we love have been kept at a distance. But Saturday gave us something we wouldn't have gotten in any other season. Four days ago, there was no plan to play what ended up being arguably the best game of the season. But in this year of chaos, a little flexibility gave us some Saturday magic, as Coastal Carolina held off BYU 22-17.
The backstory is already well known: Coastal was supposed to play Liberty. COVID-19, as it has in so many games this season, intervened. Midweek, Coastal AD Matt Hogue and BYU AD Tom Holmoe started talking, and by Thursday, it was game on.
The idea made sense for both teams, neither members of a Power 5 conference, and both largely overlooked by the College Football Playoff committee. If they wanted the respect that comes with beating a quality opponent, why not play each other?
So BYU flew 2,200 miles to Conway, South Carolina, setting up a clash of cultures between -- as a popular screen-printed T-shirt sold by a Coastal fan boasted -- Mormons vs. Mullets.
Coastal's freshman QB, Grayson McCall played like a veteran. He didn't need to throw often, but his decision-making running the option was perfect. CJ Marable, the senior tailback who has largely toiled in McCall's shadow this year, ran for 132 yards and two scores. And the Coastal defense, an afterthought as the offense has lit up the scoreboard all season, was again terrific, stifling BYU's explosive offense and halting the Cougars' playoff hopes a half-yard short of a win.
To be fair to BYU, a lot of people go to Myrtle Beach with high hopes, only to leave with nothing but a cheap T-shirt.
There's much to be taken from the game, starting with a renewed appreciation for the Chanticleers, who have now beaten two top-25 teams this season (more than Ohio State) and have another quality win over Appalachian State. The win over BYU isn't likely to convince the committee of Coastal's playoff qualifications. But given that body's repeated refrain that schedule strength matters, it would be an embarrassment if the Chanticleers weren't rewarded for first scheduling, then winning this one.
It's worth noting, too, that while Coastal probably isn't headed to the playoff, the playoff would certainly be more fun with Jamey Chadwell's crew involved. It is such an easy refrain to suggest the Chanticleers would stand no chance against Ohio State or Notre Dame, but as Saturday showed us, it is so much more fun to find a way to play the games rather than project our expectations into a void where a good game might have been.
It's of note, too, that BYU didn't have to be there. A few weeks ago, Washington came calling with an invitation to play. Given the Huskies' own Saturday struggles, that probably would have been a much more winnable game for BYU, but alas, the Cougars waited for the committee to paint them into a corner rather than jump at Washington's offer.
But the biggest takeaway is that, while it is impossible to know how differently this game might have played out had BYU had weeks, rather than days, to prepare, these two schools adjusted on the fly and gave us an absolute heavyweight bout. So why should that type of flexibility be relegated to a year decimated by COVID-19?
This shouldn't be the only season in which McCall and Wilson get center stage on a college football Saturday. Plays like Mateo Sudipo's game-saving tackle deserve national headlines for a day, even if the moment will be etched into Coastal Carolina lore. And the committee should be forced to take teams outside the Power 5 seriously, even if the schedule doesn't always accommodate.
So why not set aside one Saturday a season -- the second-to-last weekend of the season, perhaps -- for a "bracket buster" set of games between teams outside the Power 5? Schedule it two weeks out, a lifetime compared to what Coastal and BYU got to prepare -- and give the rest of the country a real look at the teams it has probably overlooked all year.
And if this isn't the future of scheduling, at least we'll have Sudipo's tackle and the raucous celebration among Coastal players that followed. Like the mullet haircut that defines them, the Chanticleers were all business, right up until the party started.
More scoreboard chaos
It wouldn't be a Saturday in 2020 without some chaos on the scoreboard, and this Saturday brought us some eyebrow-raising moments.
Texas Tech nearly did the impossible by losing to Kansas at home. The Jayhawks tied the score at 13 with less than 11 minutes to play, but a 10-play, 52-yard drive ended with a winning field goal for the Red Raiders. How bad would a loss have been? Kansas hasn't won a Big 12 road game since 2008 -- a streak of 54 straight games now. On the upside for the Jayhawks, Saturday's result marked the first time they have covered the spread this season, and the first time their defense kept the combined score lower than the over/under total.
In the MAC, we got a double dose of big wins by bad teams. Start with 0-4 Eastern Michigan, which pulled off a stunner against 4-0 Western Michigan. Beyond being a major upset, the win also means an even 1-1 split between Eastern, Central and Western Michigan this year, meaning we'll end 2020 without knowing which direction of Michigan is the best. At least we know Ann Arbor is at the bottom of the barrel.
Missouri's failed INT leads to go-ahead 2-point conversion for Arkansas
Jamal Brooks nearly intercepts the ball, but bobbles it to allow Mike Woods to catch the 2-point conversion for Arkansas.
Rice had only three games in the books entering Saturday, including losses to MTSU and North Texas, so it seemed a long shot the Owls would pull the upset against undefeated Marshall. But, five interceptions makes for a nice holiday gift, and that's exactly what Herd QB Grant Wells gave Rice's defense. Wells was the first QB on a team 7-0 or better to throw five interceptions in a game since Rutgers' Gary Nova in 2012, and as a general rule, it is not good to be compared to something that happened at Rutgers. With losses by Marshall, Washington and BYU on Saturday, the ranks of the unbeaten have been trimmed to just nine (Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Coastal Carolina, Alabama, Ohio State, Buffalo, San Jose State, Colorado and USC).
And for that second big MAC win of the week, a huge congrats to the great folks at Akron, who snapped a 21-game losing streak with a 31-3 win over Bowling Green in what was, without question, the worst matchup of teams this season. Since the start of 2018, the Zips and Falcons are a combined 5-44 against other FBS teams, with the losses coming by an average of 28 points, while ESPN's FPI pegged them as the second- and third-worst teams in the FBS this year. With that decisive loss, Bowling Green now needs to schedule UMass to determine who is officially at the bottom of the barrel. This really should be a bowl game played in the parking lot of a South Jersey shopping mall.
Checking in with CFP contenders ... and Texas
Saturday hardly showcased Clemson at its best despite its win. The Tigers actually finished with just two more first downs than Virginia Tech had. The 45-10 score, though? That got ugly. Three Hokies turnovers led to 14 points for Clemson, and even a Trevor Lawrence interception in the end zone didn't matter much. Clemson will play Notre Dame in the ACC championship game, a rematch that will feature a far healthier Tigers lineup. If there is a reason for concern for Clemson fans, though, it is Travis Etienne, who had only 66 yards in 16 carries Saturday. The Tigers found a bit more success with backups Lyn-J Dixon and Darien Rencher, and Lawrence scored twice on the ground. Etienne has now gone six straight games without eclipsing 100 rushing yards, something he hadn't done since he was a freshman backup. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott chalked it up to defenses scheming against him.
If the big question surrounding Texas A&M entering Saturday was on offense, Jimbo Fisher's team offered an emphatic answer, running for 314 yards in a 31-20 win over Auburn. It was the most rushing yards against an Auburn defense in two years, and it showcased what the Aggies do so well -- control the tempo, lean on a stellar O-line and force defenses to bring extra defenders into the box. But it also shouldn't have been an entirely surprising performance. Yes, Texas A&M didn't move the ball well last week against LSU, but in three games against ranked teams this year, the Aggies have now averaged better than 500 yards of offense, and the LSU game was the only time this season they have averaged fewer than 5.7 yards-per-play. Besides, if the offense is good enough to get Fisher talking as if he's running a cattle auction, it is good enough to make a real playoff push.
Auctioneer Jimbo Fisher made an appearance after Texas A&M's 31-20 win at Auburn and it was tremendous: pic.twitter.com/TIrqkeZvcl— Brent Zwerneman (@BrentZwerneman) December 5, 2020
After a seemingly endless string of close games, Texas finally got an emphatic win, thumping Kansas State 69-31. It was a needed respite for Tom Herman, who has drawn the ire of the Texas fan base after another lackluster season, including last week's loss to Iowa State that ended hopes for a Big 12 title. After Saturday's game, Herman said he didn't pay much attention to the rumors about his job security, noting his time on the internet is typically reserved for "Yahoo News, Words with Friends and the Chive app."
Tennessee dropped its sixth straight game Saturday, with the offense disappearing for much of the game as Florida marched to an easy 31-19 win. The Vols' final 12 points came in garbage time but still nearly doubled the entirety of their second-half scoring in the previous five games of the losing streak. While coach Jeremy Pruitt's job has also been the subject of rumors of late, the program's problems have largely been limited to a woeful offense. Tennessee played three QBs against Florida, none of whom looked good, and if Pruitt is going to turn the program around long term, he has to find an answer at that position. And the oldest Manning offspring is still two years away.
Oklahoma is headed to the Big 12 title game against Iowa State, and Saturday's game against Baylor was another easy victory for the Sooners, who have now won six straight after a 1-2 start. They got some help during the week from former coach Bob Stoops, who stepped in to assist with practices but wasn't on the sideline for game day. But here's the wild part of Saturday's 27-14 win: It's the first time since Nov. 17, 2016, that Oklahoma failed to score at least 28 points. That one came in a loss to Ohio State. You have to go back another year, to the loss to Texas in 2015, to find a Big 12 game in which the Sooners failed to find the end zone at least four times. And Oklahoma hasn't won a game while scoring fewer than 28 since 2013, when the Sooners toppled TCU 20-17. The lesson? Keep Bob Stoops away from Lincoln Riley's offense!
Apologies to the great Jaret Patterson. We'd love to keep him in our top 5, but after Buffalo was forced to nix this week's game against Ohio, he just hasn't played enough games to push his way onto the list.
1. Florida QB Kyle Trask
Even in a game in which Florida's offense often felt a bit out of sync, Trask's line -- 433 yards, four TDs -- was eye popping. Trask has had at least three touchdown throws in every game this season, but he's still unlikely to have the award locked up until he faces off against his chief competitor in the SEC championship.
Notre Dame mascot makes unbelievable trick kick
The Notre Dame Leprechaun catches the ball with his foot and kicks it through the uprights.
2. Alabama QB Mac Jones
Should we be talking about DeVonta Smith instead here? The Alabama receiver had eight catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns and is clearly the best pass-catcher in college football. That makes life easy for Jones, who had 385 passing yards and four TDs against LSU to bolster his already impressive Heisman credentials. Oh, and then there's RB Najee Harris. Maybe just give the award to everyone on Alabama's offense?
3. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Lawrence threw for a TD and ran for two more in Clemson's win over Virginia Tech, but given the big games for the guys ahead of him, his Heisman chances are looking increasingly slim. On the upside, Deshaun Watson was twice in the top three in voting without winning it, but he got some better hardware in the end.
4. Ohio State QB Justin Fields
We had dropped Fields for a couple of weeks, too, after a lackluster game against Indiana (three picks) and a couple of games canceled due to virus issues at Ohio State. But while the Buckeyes went to battle against a good Michigan State defense without a host of O-linemen on Saturday, Fields didn't miss a beat, finishing with 303 total yards and four TDs.
5. Notre Dame QB Ian Book
The numbers are good -- 63% completions, 23 touchdowns -- but they hardly tell the full story. Book's ability to move the pocket, extend plays and keep defenses on their heels has been the key to Notre Dame's offensive success this year. Every game, he does a couple of dozen little things that won't show up in a box score that have made him special and made the Irish a playoff contender.
Under-the-radar game of the week
There wasn't much on the line for Arkansas and Missouri beyond the inside track on the SEC's coach of the year award, but Sam Pittman and Eli Drinkwitz, two first-year coaches, gave us the day's best finish.
In Pittman's first year coaching Arkansas, the Razorbacks have shown a relentless fight that stands in stark contrast to the woeful state of affairs he inherited. That showed up numerous times Saturday, including a perfectly executed fake field goal attempt that went for 20 yards and set up a TD, and a late, 13-play drive that ended with a decision to go for 2 and the win. The play looked ugly from the outset, however, and Missouri's Jamal Brooks had an apparent interception, but the ball bounced off his hands and into the waiting arms of Arkansas' Mike Woods.
Drinkwitz, who has Missouri at 5-3 in his first year with the Tigers, wasn't worried. With 43 seconds left, he told his QB, "Let's go win the game," and that's exactly what happened. Missouri went 60 yards in 40 seconds and booted a 32-yard field goal as time expired to win by 2.
Under-the-radar play of the week
This has been a weird year, but leave it to Illinois to up the ante a bit. Through five games, the Illini's punt return game has been mediocre, so head coach Lovie Smith decided to shake things up. His new punt returner Saturday was sophomore Caleb Griffin, who is usually the team's back-up kicker. He finished with one return for 4 yards, which officially puts him in second place among FBS kickers in all-purpose yards this season, behind Texas State's Seth Keller, who had a 12-yard rush against Louisiana.
Of course, with kickers being elevated to return duties, it is only fair to promote someone else into a kicker role. That's where the Notre Dame mascot comes in.
And, if we've read our rule book correctly, once the mascot becomes the kicker, one of the guys holding the down markers will be promoted to mascot.
Big bets and bad beats
Trailing by seven after TCU QB Max Duggan connected with Derius Davis on a 71-yard touchdown, Oklahoma State looked to tie the score with a first-and-goal at the 2. Overtime would have given the Cowboys a good chance to cover a 2.5-point spread, but as significantly, any points on this drive would have put the game over the total of 52.5. Instead, Trevon Moehrig made a one-handed bobbling interception in the back of the end zone on a second-down throw, ending the drive and any hopes bettors had for a cover on the Pokes or the over.
Good teams win, great teams cover, and elite QBs know the spread and get real mad about it. Such was the case for Coastal's Grayson McCall, who taped a printout to his locker showing that BYU opened as a 10-point favorite against the Chanticleers after the game was scheduled on Thursday. (Coastal had been a double-digit favorite against its original opponent, Liberty.) McCall threw for just 85 yards in the game as Coastal relied on its ground attack, but the point was that the Chants covered with ease and pulled a huge upset with the 22-17 win.
If you had the money line on Appalachian State on Friday night, you're probably still unpacking the roller coaster of emotions you went through in the final few minutes. After Louisiana watched its long snapper fire off a trio of snaps that were less than stellar, coach Billy Napier took a safety on a fourth-and-2 play -- from the 35-yard line. Rather than punt or go for it, he handed App State two points and gave the Mountaineers a shot to tie with a field goal. That is nearly what happened, as the Mountaineers marched down the field and set up for a 30-yard try with five seconds left. But the football gods smiled on Louisiana, and the kick was tipped at the line, handing the Ragin' Cajuns a 24-21 win.