Through three quarters, the teams had mustered three field goals between them. The first touchdown of the day was a pick-six. It was a pillow fight in the Swamp, and it was all too easy to anoint Georgia — owner of its own suffocating defense and at least some ability to score thanks to a fine tailback tandem — the favorite in the SEC East.
But suddenly, the offenses found a pulse. Feleipe Franks led the Florida offense to its first touchdown of the year. Quinten Dormady engineered three consecutive scoring drives. Overtime beckoned, and Florida’s ludicrous mismanagement of the clock in the final 30 seconds cemented the possibility of extra time.
Except this happened:
It was a classic case of an unforgettable finish redeeming what was for more than 50 minutes a miserable game. And while the Gators’ 26-20 triumph didn’t prove much — beyond Franks’s ability to throw the ball a long way — it did even Florida’s record at 1-1 and provided some hope the Gators will have some mojo when they encounter Georgia next month.
It also was yet another example of Tennessee’s weird end-of-game voodoo. It’s sometimes good (Labor Day against Georgia Tech) and it’s sometimes bad (Saturday), but the final minutes of a game involving a Butch Jones-coached Tennessee team are likely to be interesting. The best advice for a Volunteers game is to turn it on in the middle of the fourth quarter; the good stuff is likely still to come.
It was certainly the case Saturday.
As for other happenings in college football . . .
* Southern California. Survived Texas in double overtime, 27-24, using a last-minute drive in regulation for a field goal to force extra time.
On the one hand, the Trojans saw some offensive limitations revealed by the devil-may-care Longhorns, who took just about every risk they could besides going for two in the first overtime period when they had a chance to win. On the other, Southern Cal (3-0) won without its best performance. Sam Darnold’s penchant for throwing interceptions remains a concern, but the Trojans’ national title hopes still have a pulse.
* Clemson. At the end of the night, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson’s numbers look fine. He threw for 317 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 64 yards. And Clemson still did just about everything it wanted to when it mattered to contain the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
The visiting Tigers (3-0) rolled past Louisville, 47-21, piling up 613 yards while never trailing in what was set up as a dangerous game. Just as in the last two years, Clemson is the team to beat in the ACC. The Tigers have demolished Louisville and Florida State will proceed the rest of the season with a true freshman at quarterback. Saturday went a long way toward nudging Clemson toward its third playoff berth in a row.
* Vanderbilt: The Commodores (3-0) made a late defensive stand in a 14-7 victory over Kansas State, the start of a brutal stretch that continues with Alabama, Florida and Georgia over the next three weeks. While Derek Mason’s team played well against Middle Tennessee and Alabama A&M, this is the sort of triumph that will draw some attention.
Vanderbilt has half of a great team. Its defense was the primary reason it managed to make a bowl game last year, and it has surrendered just 13 points in three games. The offense? Well, its viability is still to be determined. But there’s no reason the Commodores can’t finish at .500 in the SEC, especially given the state of the East Division.
* Nick Fitzgerald: The Mississippi State QB did as he pleased in the Bulldogs’ 37-7 rout of Louisiana State, throwing for 180 yards and two touchdowns while tacking on 88 yards and two touchdowns rushing.
Fitzgerald had the unenviable task of succeeding Dak Prescott in Starkville, and he’s come a long way in the last year. In an early-season start at LSU in 2016, Fitzgerald had 13 yards on 13 carries as Mississippi State struggled to get any traction. This year, he and the Bulldogs ran wild on the Tigers — and might have set themselves up as the best SEC West team outside of Tuscaloosa.
* Memphis: The Tigers won the wildest game of the afternoon, outlasting UCLA, 48-45, as Riley Ferguson threw for 398 yards and six touchdowns while outdueling Bruins star Josh Rosen (463 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions).
It’s probably a little early to ponder the possibility Memphis makes it through the American Athletic Conference’s West Division unscathed. There’s still Houston and Navy to navigate, as well as Southern Methodist and Tulsa.
It is not too early to note Memphis has an exceptional offense more than capable of piling up yardage, or that Ferguson (who threw for a school-record 32 touchdowns last year) is one of the most entertaining passers in the country. The Tigers have made a habit of pulling surprises at the Liberty Bowl (Mississippi in 2015, Houston last year) and will again be a force in the AAC this year.
* Mason Rudolph: It’s not a perfect formula for Heisman Trophy contention, but it covers the majority of those who emerge as candidates for the stiff-arming statue:
Star skill position player + top-10 team + early dominant performances = Heisman contender
Rudolph already had the first two boxes checked, and his 23-of-32, 497-yard, five-touchdown showing in less than three full quarters of a rout at Pittsburgh was probably his first game of 2017 that drew considerable notice (though there probably was an audience for a Thursday night rout of Tulsa and a Friday night shredding of South Alabama the first two weeks of the season).
Rudolph is completing 72.3 percent of his passes and has 11 touchdowns against one interception in three games. Whether he gains more support will depend on later showings, but Saturday firmly planted him in the conversation.
* DeMontie Cross and Kenwick Thompson: Cross began this year as Missouri’s defensive coordinator. Thompson was in his second year in the same role at East Carolina. Both were relieved of their duties earlier this week.
Guess it wasn’t all the fault of Cross and Thompson, after all.
* Louisiana State. Flattened by Mississippi State, the Tigers simply did not play good enough defense to have a prayer in their SEC opener. LSU (2-1, 0-1) had the ball for a little more than 24 minutes and ran just 58 plays in a 37-7 setback. There is work to do if Ed Orgeron’s team will have any shot against Alabama, which doesn’t look all that vulnerable to either set of Tigers (LSU and Auburn) in the SEC West.
* Nebraska: It would be discouraging enough for the Cornhuskers if they’d simply lost, 21-17, to Northern Illinois. But Mike Riley’s bunch also survived a scare from Arkansas State in its opener, then got buried early before attempting a comeback last week at Oregon.
Nebraska QB Tanner Lee had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the first quarter, and the Tulane transfer was picked off late in the fourth quarter to end any chance of a comeback. That wasn’t the only problem for the Cornhuskers, who averaged a meager 2.4 yards per carry against the Huskies.
There’s a lot for Riley to fix, and meetings with Rutgers and Illinois the next two weeks at least provide winnable games. But so was Saturday’s. With Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Lincoln the first two weekends of October, there’s only so much time available for Nebraska to figure things out — if it even can.
* Kansas: It seemed like the Jayhawks had a semi-credible chance to end their long losing streak away from Lawrence when they visited Ohio on Saturday.
(Ron Howard-as-narrator voice: “They did not.”)
The Bobcats extended the Kansas slide away from home to 42 games, two shy of the college football record set by Western (Colo.) State from 1926 to 1936, with a 42-30 victory over the Jayhawks. It was not that competitive: Ohio led by 25 going into the fourth quarter.
Kansas (1-2) has dropped back-to-back games against solid Mid-American Conference programs (it lost at home to Central Michigan last week) and has nothing but Big 12 play remaining. That includes trips to Iowa State, Texas Christian, Texas and Oklahoma State, and the Jayhawks will probably be considerable underdogs in all of them.
* Pittsburgh: The setup was already poor for the Panthers: Rudolph torched them last year, their secondary is a sieve and they invested a lot of emotion in last week’s game at Penn State. Pitt wasn’t a good bet to keep things close against Oklahoma State even before the opening kickoff.
But the end result was simply dreadful. Pittsburgh (1-2) allowed 572 total yards and yielded four 100-yard receiving days. QB Max Browne was benched in the first half after another so-so showing, and it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll meet the same fate as last year, when his starting position at Southern Cal was usurped by Sam Darnold after three games and a 1-2 start.