One of the beautiful things about college football is that just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it has a funny way of reminding you how little you really know.
Saturday was another example of how one play, one inch, one moment can change our perception and negate everything we thought we knew.
Heading into Week 3, we all knew that No. 4 USC would dominate Texas at the Coliseum. Late in the fourth quarter of the fiasco that was No. 23 Tennessee vs. No. 24 Florida, it was obvious that there was no way a touchdown (an offensive one, at least) would decide the game. And No. 12 LSU was going to win its ninth straight over Mississippi State in Starkville.
Here’s what it looked like when Saturday ended: USC needed two overtimes and the first two field goals of a true freshman, walk-on kicker’s career (one to force overtime, one for the victory) to win, Florida dialed up a Hail Mary to beat Tennessee, and LSU lost by 20 points.
It’s frustrating to be so wrong about a sport we love so much and think we know so well. But the payoff comes in the surprises each week, and that’s why we make the emotional investment in college football. And while it can be uncomfortable to admit you’re wrong, it helps to keep looking at the entire picture.
For starters, can we really put a ton of stock into Florida’s frantic finish in the Swamp? Sure, quarterback Feleipe Franks grew up some in front of our eyes, as he went from mostly anemic (along with the rest of Florida’s offense and playcalling) to super with his perfectly thrown, 63-yard strike to a diving Tyrie Cleveland in the end zone to vanquish the Vols 26-20.
“I told Feleipe to just give me a chance,” Cleveland told ESPN on Saturday. “We weren’t going into overtime if he gave me a chance. He threw it on the dot, I ran fast and he gave me a chance.”
Franks’ prayer was the exact yardage Will Grier (sorry, Gators fans) needed to shock Tennessee two years ago, so maybe it’s just Tennessee. Or maybe Franks really is evolving. We don’t know. All we know is that Florida shocked us with a miracle touchdown from an offense that failed to complete anything thrown more than 10 yards downfield prior.
“He kept his composure,” Cleveland said of Franks. “A lot of quarterbacks would have tried to force things or try to make more stuff happen, but he just stayed under control and trusted the process.”
The Gators (1-1, 1-0 SEC) have proven they can win the SEC East under Jim McElwain without registering much of a pulse on offense, but it’s no secret they still have issues, regardless of this finish. It took a tired Tennessee defense and a terribly defended deep ball to leave the Swamp with a win on Saturday.
Another team we’re not sure about after Saturday is USC. We want to believe that the Trojans are the Pac-12’s best hope for a College Football Playoff berth, but in a game that should have been a blowout, USC needed double overtime to beat Texas. It was a fantastic game, and the Longhorns proved many of us wrong by hanging for four-plus quarters with the Trojans (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12), but USC’s inconsistency, especially on offense, is concerning.
Texas appears to be tougher than we thought, but USC is still an enigma. However, USC doesn’t play No. 6 Washington or a rising Oregon team in the regular season. The evolution of USC doesn’t have to be perfect just yet.
One team not evolving is LSU. It was always going to be “buyer beware” with the Tigers, but Saturday showed us that selling early was the way to go with LSU.
Ed Orgeron never won in Starkville as Ole Miss head coach, and he’s now 0-1 at LSU. And what a zero it was. Entering as a 7.5-point favorite, LSU (2-1, 0-1 SEC) was throttled 37-7, as Mississippi State (3-0, 1-0 SEC) snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Tigers at home.
Even if you picked Mississippi State, you were probably shocked by the outcome. Well, unless you were Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald, who totaled 268 yards of offense and four touchdowns. He told ESPN after the win that no one in his locker room was surprised by dismantling LSU.
“I guess to everyone outside of our facility, we’re not supposed to do that, but, honestly, if you ask anyone on this football team or anyone in the program at all, they would have told you that it wasn’t going to be an upset by any means,” said Fitzgerald, who knew the Bulldogs could exploit LSU in one-on-one situations. “We knew that we could win the ballgame, and we knew that we could score points. We knew that we were going to win it.”
So is LSU much worse than advertised or is Mississippi State much better? With Auburn getting pounded and narrowly escaping, uh, Mercer, the Bulldogs now become the favorite to challenge Alabama in the SEC West, right?
“I’m going to worry about UGA next week and go from there,” a laughing Fitzgerald said.
What’s also smart is getting on Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph’s bandwagon. Probably known more for playing for the head coach with a famous mullet, Rudolph is your early season surprise to sneak into the top of the Heisman Trophy race.
He has thrown for 1,135 yards and 11 touchdowns to one interception. On Saturday, he threw for 497 yards and five touchdowns, with 423 yards and all those touchdowns coming in the first half.
“We wanted to come out and blow the top off this thing,” Rudolph told reporters after the Cowboys flattened Pittsburgh 59-21.
Yeah, I’d say he did, and now he’s really slipping into the Heisman discussion. With Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson getting clobbered by No. 3 Clemson (and still managing 381 total yards and a three passing touchdowns), Sam Darnold looking all out of sorts at times against Texas, and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen losing at Memphis — and throwing an ugly pick-six in the process — Rudolph has thrown himself into the running, once again showing us that surprises coming in all different colors.
Here’s the best of the rest from Week 3
Don’t skip arm day, Ohio
That’s quite the endorsement
Clemson’s Kelly Bryant is 3-0 as a starter, and he’s done pretty well so far. But apparently, the best player in Clemson history has higher hopes.
He will be better than me! https://t.co/CUyyNcesZO
— Deshaun Watson (@deshaunwatson) September 17, 2017
Love the Lamar Heisman suit t-shirt…class & comfort…
Gimme five in a half
Seems like a decent first-half line. pic.twitter.com/2HB5plZgGL
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 16, 2017
Nap time at Heinz Field
Let’s check in on Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/Gu9TZxjwbJ
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 16, 2017
Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State had a day in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh fans were offered a free drink for staying through the whole game. Thus, probably, the napping.
Put on for the city
The Gators aren’t the only ones sporting post-Irma helmet stickers today. The Volunteers will be wearing these, too. (courtesy Tennessee athletics department)
Tonight when they host Rice, the Houston Cougars will wear “HOUSTON” on the backs of their jerseys, a reminder to the players that they’re playing for the city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
During pregame of the Rice-Houston game, the players came together for a show of solidarity.
Rice also wore a “Houston Strong” helmet.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 17, 2017