November has come back, and it has come to wreck your daydreams. It can howl at them with absurdity (see Michigan State, Ole Miss), or it can impede them with reality (see TCU, LSU), or it can stampede them with a rushing attack from the United States Naval Academy (see Memphis).
Whatever the way, college football’s annual month of highest drama can haunt you merely for the remainder of your lifetime.
It’s one of the game’s many appeals.
Consider the Michigan State minds that will relive Saturday night for their remaining decades. They will see four referees conferring over their fate with 17 seconds left in Lincoln, Neb. They will see those referees apparently blowing a call and awarding a 30-yard touchdown reception to a Nebraska receiver who had spent part of his route far enough out of bounds that he looked like one of those stray fake-marathoners who joins the race late.
They will see the play to go review, and they will see the call upheld by something other than evidence.
With their team previously 8-0 and No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings, they will have to engage in other logic to help them cope. Logic: If you lead 38-26 with 4:16 left against a 3-6 team, you should win. If you lead 38-33 with 1:47 left and can’t make a first down or even as many as zero yards — they made minus-3 — maybe you shouldn’t win.
Wait, no, this: If you have an opponent on its 9-yard line with 55 seconds left, and you lead by five, and then you give up a 28-yard pass, and then you give up a 33-yard pass to a receiver (Jordan Westerkamp) gaspingly open, 61 yards on two passes, maybe you’re just a bit too imperfect.
Or, as the ever-measured Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio summarized, “Controversial play at the end. They should have never been down there (at the 30-yard line) in the first place.”
Think of the Ole Miss people who sat through such saga on Saturday. They had a No. 18 ranking, but more significantly, they had precious control of their own path in the Southeastern Conference with unranked, 4-4 Arkansas in town. They, the Rebels, could have gummed up the whole national puzzle by winning the SEC with two losses. Even as somebody called 911 and asked if police could remove the hot Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen from the stadium, they thought they had won over the Hogs.
They thought they had won in the overtime when they went up 52-45 and then Arkansas faced fourth down and 25 from the Ole Miss 40-yard line. They thought they had won during that fourth-and-25 when Ole Miss corralled tight end Hunter Henry who, as his legs got yanked from beneath him, fell hopelessly toward Earth and made a completely wacko lateral that bounced. They probably thought they had won even when Alex Collins scooped it up, of which Collins would say, “Next thing I knew the ball was in the sky, it landed in my hands and I ran for my life.”
That 31-yard gain and first down prompted an Arkansas touchdown, but when Arkansas gambled on the win right away and Ole Miss stopped the two-point conversion, the Ole Miss-minded should have thought they had won.
After the face-mask call and Allen’s dive into the end zone, they had not won, 53-52.
“I hurt for our kids, for our coaches, our fans and our administration,” said Coach Hugh Freeze, whose team has lost thrice since it went to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama on Sept. 19. “You put so much into this deal and then you lose a game like tonight that comes down to the wire. It is very difficult and gut-wrenching.”
At least the TCU souls of the world didn’t have the wrenched guts. They went ahead and lost 49-29 at No. 14 Oklahoma State. They, the Frog-minded, had foraged into November at No. 8 and realistic visions of playoff inclusion, but soon they trailed 28-9 at halftime, 35-9 soon after that, 42-16 after three quarters.
Worse, their quarterback, the Heisman Trophy contender Trevone Boykin took his pre-game, season-long interception total of five and heaped a shocking and pivotal four upon it.
“He had a bad game,” Coach Gary Patterson said, soon adding, “He’s in there in tears right now because nobody in there hurts worse than he does right now.”
Dreams do inflate through September and October, and that’s the problem with November. LSU had built a mass of them, with a 7-0 record, a No. 2 ranking and the rampaging exploits of running back Leonard Fournette, the Heisman front-runner whose 193 rushing yards per game led the whole nation by a gaping 45.
Then they found Alabama in November, and the result managed to be both startling and realistic. It wasn’t that Fournette was held under 100, or held under 80 with some plebeian number. This marvel with three 200-yard games and no game under 150 got held under 32 — to 31, on 19 carries. “He couldn’t go nowhere,” Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said. This paramount factor in Alabama’s 30-16 win was a strange sight, but also a reminder of the fast, hard sorts who play football for Alabama.
“I think that the offensive line faced a very talented and capable defensive line in Alabama, so they were tested,” LSU Coach Les Miles said.
And Memphis. Memphis, with its opening ranking of No. 13, the highest ever for a sub-Power Five team, threatened to give us fine havoc. Unbeaten, it threatened the top four, start a big national argument, inveigh against the traditions of snobbery.
Instead, it lost at home by 45-20 to a considerable Navy team. It will not be in the playoff. It will not even cause us any vehemence against each other at family gatherings, on the radio or in saloons.
At least Justin Fuente, the hotshot Memphis coach, could say of Navy, “That is a fine football team we just played,” and, “They run a lot better and are a lot more athletic than anyone gives them credit for.”
In one first weekend of November, the unbeaten teams had dwindled from 11 to six, including the steady Clemson and Ohio State, with 10 once-beaten teams from the Power Five. From those 16, the four should come, and the hopes do persist for some nobody expected, such as Iowa (9-0) and Oklahoma State (9-0).
“We felt a bit snubbed,” Oklahoma State linebacker Chad Whitener said of that No. 14 ranking, the lowest among the Power Five unbeaten teams. Now with hopes steepened, they’ve got so much more November to play, even as some in that program will remember the November of 2011, when the Cowboys took their 10-0 record and No. 2 national ranking to I-I-Iowa State and saw the thing deflate.
They know November can come all puffed up, but can fizzle just as well, even when a receiver comes from out of bounds or a tight end laterals like some madman. They know that in November, more than any other month, people end up crying in the locker room.