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October 30, 2020
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Mike Leach takes on the SEC and more on a glorious day of college football

The schedule says the 2020 college football season officially kicked off three weeks ago, and the announcements from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and others suggest the sport won’t be at full capacity for another month or more, but all of that is wrong. College football season began Saturday.

What do we truly love about this game? Name it. Any image you dreamed of during this long, winding, stress-filled offseason — it happened Saturday.

Need a stunning upset? We give you Kansas State, erasing a 21-point deficit and shocking No. 3 Oklahoma for the second consecutive season.

Need one of those “only in college football” storylines to root for? There is now a reasonable case to be made that Elijah Moore‘s decision to mimic a dog urinating in the end zone late in last season’s Egg Bowl represented a tear in the space-time continuum, some alternate universe where a pirate (Mike Leach) and a Stanford quarterback (K.J. Costello) move to Starkville, Mississippi, and upend the league by topping the defending champs.

Want to watch Texas squash the hopes of its fans for another year only to resurrect them, all in a miraculous, three-minute stretch that seemed stunning even by Big 12 standards? Saturday had that, too.

Saturday also gave us Mac Jones solidifying his role as the leader of Alabama’s offense, Kyle Trask torching Lane Kiffin’s defense, Georgia flipping through a rolodex of quarterbacks before landing on the last guy anyone was expecting, a kicker nailing a game winner from 53 yards, a brutal officiating call creating havoc in a top-25 SEC showdown (Kentucky vs. Auburn), and Miami delivering a blowout win against archrival Florida State.

Yes, Saturday was like old times — weird, surprising, dramatic — a dash of nearly everything we’d been missing since LSU hoisted the trophy in January.

Start in Oklahoma, where for three years Lincoln Riley has been less a coach than a shaman, a man whose mere presence on the sideline could conjure Heisman contenders from thin air. Perhaps Spencer Rattler will still blossom into a genuine superstar, but on Saturday, he threw three picks — the first time a Sooners QB has done so since 2014 — as Kansas State pulled off the stunner.

Move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where perhaps we should have expected a sizable step back for the defending champs, who bore virtually no resemblance to the team that etched its name across the college football record books last season.

Mike Leach’s debut in the SEC was a marvel. The LSU defense had no answer for Costello, who threw for 623 yards, or Kylin Hill, who rushed just seven times but hauled in 183 receiving yards in Leach’s Air Raid offense.

Click over to see Louisiana kicker Nate Snyder, struggling so badly that his coach didn’t trust him to connect on a 32-yard try in the first quarter, drilling a 53-yard game winner to keep the Cajuns undefeated. Who doesn’t love a nice kicker-makes-good story?

Check out Auburn’s new offensive era (fit with a more experienced Bo Nix at quarterback and Gus Malzahn in a shirt-and-tie tribute to Pat Dye) open with a victory, while Kentucky fans spend the aftermath dreaming up imaginative places the officials can stuff their electronic whistles.

Sit back and smugly giggle about the tweet you just typed, mocking Texas for its latest catastrophe as the Longhorns trailed by 15 with 3:13 to play and ESPN’s metrics gave Texas Tech a 99% chance of winning, then scramble for your keyboard to delete that same tweet when Texas converts a 2-point try to tie it with 40 seconds to go.

This was the Saturday we didn’t know we so desperately needed. It felt right. It felt good. It felt like old times.

Ranking the SEC QB performances

Who says they play great defense in the SEC? That wasn’t exactly on display Saturday, but perhaps we can chalk up the high scores to some terrific QB performances.

Costello got a ton of love, throwing for five touchdowns. But LSU was without cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Hard to imagine Costello topping 500 yards with Stingley in the game, right?

At Florida, Trask threw for 416 yards and six touchdowns. Only Danny Wuerffel and Chris Leak had ever compiled six passing touchdowns for the Gators in a game. That’s pretty good company.

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0:58

Quarterback Kyle Trask throws for six touchdowns as No. 5 Florida defeats Ole Miss 51-35 in its season opener.

Or how about Nix at Auburn? In his first game with new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Nix delivered three touchdown throws, something he managed only once last season.

So who did it best? Clearly the nod has to go to Nix because, in addition to his passing stats, he also had 77 yards punting. In today’s game, it’s important to be versatile.

Georgia’s QB carousel keeps spinning

Remember when Jamie Newman was the answer at Georgia? That feels like a long time ago.

When the Bulldogs kicked off Saturday at Arkansas, Newman wasn’t there — he opted out last month — and the seeming second option, JT Daniels, hadn’t yet been cleared to play. That left D’Wan Mathis to get the start, but he struggled, too — finishing 8-of-17 for 55 yards and a pick.

So, that is bad news when you’re down to your fourth quarterback, right? Not for Georgia.

Stetson Bennett IV — a man whose name sounds as if he should be a billionaire and whose nickname is “The Mailman” based on some curious hat choices during a recruiting camp years ago — entered in relief and finished strong, completing 20 of 29 throws for 211 yards and two TDs. Georgia rallied for 32 second-half points and, in turn, avoided a stunning embarrassment.

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0:52

Despite limited practice reps beforehand, quarterback Stetson Bennett says he never fretted Georgia’s slow start against Arkansas.

But does that mean Bennett is the starter moving forward?

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart wouldn’t say after the game, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the secrecy that has surrounded the position for months. Still, unless Daniels is cleared and shows up to practice wearing a Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat, we’ll be pulling for Bennett to get at least one more crack at the gig.

Game of inches

It’s an old coaching clichΓ© that you play until the whistle, but Syracuse and Pitt both managed to prove there’s value in the rhetoric.

The Orange opened their scoring against Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets thought they had Sean Tucker down at the 25-yard line, but nope. Tucker’s knee never touched, he rolled over a defender, got up and sprinted for the TD.

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0:57

Sean Tucker gets pulled down, but never actually hits the ground, and books it for a 38-yard Syracuse touchdown.

Not to be outdone, Pitt’s Taysir Mack was pulled down by the Louisville defense at virtually the same spot on the field, twisted over the defender without ever touching the ground, got up and scampered into the end zone, too.

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0:38

Louisville defenders nearly bring Taysir Mack to the ground, but Mack plays on and chugs 40 yards to the end zone for a Pittsburgh touchdown.

‘We’re not the worst!’

ESPN’s SP+ had 91 teams ranked entering Week 4. The No. 90 team was Louisiana-Monroe. The No. 91 team was UTEP. And, in gloriously ugly fashion, the two went head-to-head Saturday.

Lest you think the Miners didn’t take genuine offense to their dead-last ranking, however, you were in for a surprise.

UTEP dominated the game, jumping out to a 24-0 lead and finishing with a 31-6 victory. It was UTEP’s largest margin of victory since 2016, and the Miners are now, unbelievably, 3-1 on the season. Sure, two of those wins are against FCS opponents, but let’s not split hairs. UTEP had only two wins in the previous three seasons combined.

Heisman Five

We’re ranking only guys who have played, so sadly, we’re not yet able to include Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Let’s dig in …

1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

An off week for the Tigers, which one hopes allowed Lawrence to spend some extra time on conditioning. And by that we mean using extra conditioner on his luxurious hair.

2. Texas QB Sam Ehlinger

Yes, a lot had to go right for Ehlinger to even get the chance to stage a dramatic come-from-behind win against Texas Tech, but the guy still delivered when it mattered most, finishing with 332 total yards and six touchdowns.

3. Mississippi State QB K.J. Costello

Costello is probably the most purely talented quarterback Mike Leach has ever coached, and boy that looks as if it will be a fun combination this season. Joe Burrow‘s records are probably safe because of the abridged season, but Costello is going to put up some numbers in 2020.

4. Florida QB Kyle Trask

When the phrase “the first time since Danny Wuerffel” comes into play, you’ve had yourself a good game. Trask threw for 416 yards and six touchdowns in the Gators’ win over Ole Miss, leading Florida to its most yards in a conference game in school history.

5. Miami QB D’Eriq King

He went over 300 total yards in his rivalry debut against Florida State, though Seminoles fans probably didn’t notice since, if they had any sense of self-preservation, they switched over to “A Madea Halloween” halfway through the first quarter.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and a handful of injuries, Charlotte had to nix a second straight game Saturday, but coach Will Healy didn’t let the day go to waste.

The 49ers got together for whiffle ball, golf and a little 7-on-7 football to build camaraderie amid a tough start to the season.

The highlight of the day? Healy’s dad, Rob, who ran for a score. Not bad for the former Georgia Tech QB.

Under-the-radar game of the week

The most entertaining player few fans have actually seen this season is probably Liberty quarterback Malik Willis. The Auburn transfer turned in another stellar game, throwing for 285, running for 85 and tossing two TDs in what turned out to be a dramatic showdown with Florida International. The game featured a 100-yard return on the opening kickoff, five lead changes and a dramatic finish, with Liberty up eight with 4:30 to play when D’vonte Price hauled in a TD pass. The 2-point try failed, and FIU couldn’t do anything on its final drive, helping the Flames move to 2-0.

Best bets and bad beats

  • Perhaps next season, Oklahoma should convince Las Vegas to keep its line against Kansas State a little lower. Last season, the Sooners were favored by 23.5 points and lost outright. Then Saturday, Oklahoma was a whopping 27.5-point favorite, and it led by 21 late in the third quarter. No matter. K-State roared back to win 38-35, making the Wildcats just the second team in FBS history to win as a 23-plus-point underdog in back-to-back years since Ball State did it in 2000 and 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. K-State is just the third FBS team to upset the same team as a 20-point or more underdog in back-to-back years, and the Wildcats have now won six games as an outright underdog since the start of last season, the most by any team in the country in that span.

  • The line on TCU-Iowa State was 3 for much of the week, which meant both sides got to be furious Saturday. TCU had the ball down two points with just more than 4 minutes to play, and Max Duggan delivered a perfect pass that his receiver dropped, only for Iowa State’s Mike Rose to make a miraculous interception. That quickly turned into a Cyclones touchdown, putting them up nine with less than 3 minutes to go. Easy cover for the Cyclones, right? Not so fast. TCU then marched on a 13-play drive, scoring on the final throw of the game to pull within three. Just kick the PAT and Horned Frogs backers could celebrate. Not so fast. Gary Patterson elected against kicking it, since time had run out, and we ended up with a push.

  • Trailing big against UCF, East Carolina marched 77 yards on 11 plays on its final drive, scoring with 19 seconds to go to bring the score to 51-28. And if that didn’t seem overly important to you, you didn’t have the under, which had closed at a seemingly wild 78 points.

  • The total for the Alabama-Missouri game closed at 56, and the under looked like a safe bet as Alabama took its foot off the gas in the second half and Missouri couldn’t move the ball at all. In fact, the under was still safe with 4 seconds to play, when Connor Bazelak threw an incomplete pass on third-and-1 at the Tide 7. But Missouri wasn’t having it. Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz called timeout — in a 38-13 game — and on the next play, Bazelak ran 7 yards for the touchdown. Final score: 38-19. The over hits by a point.

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