The bronze medal for team of the year goes to Indiana, and you know Indiana. That’s that football program that passes the time until basketball season when the knowledgeable fans can go indoors and grumble, with their grumbling muscles fresh because they haven’t bothered grumbling about football.
Well, they’re having themselves some autumn at 6-1 and at No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings. What a telltale scene in the end zone Saturday after the 14-6 outmuscling — yes, outmuscling — at Wisconsin even without injured star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. The great Holly Rowe, seer of many a sideline, said she hadn’t seen anything quite like it.
Tom Allen, that afterthought promotion from defensive coordinator during the quiet chaos of December 2016, stood answering Rowe’s questions. An impromptu parade of Hoosiers interrupted their walks to the locker room to make statements. Offensive lineman Dylan Powell said: “Recruits, come play for this man. Best coach in America!” Defensive lineman Jonathan King stopped by to add love as Allen said, “I just love this football team!” Running back Stevie Scott III and defensive back Jamar Johnson turned up on both sides of Allen and said, “Best coach in America right there!”
They say “L.E.O” in their program — for “Love Each Other” — which provides yet another reminder of the century we inhabit and yet another chortle at last century. Can you imagine such a slogan around John McKay, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler or Bear Bryant?
The silver medal goes to Iowa State, and you know Iowa State. It has been playing football since it went a misleading 1-0-1 in 1892 and a portentous 0-3 in 1893, and it has served mainly as a sort of dessert for sorts like Oklahoma and Nebraska to fatten themselves and their records. Until Saturday, the Cyclones have never been the outright winner of a regular season conference title, having shared those 1911 and 1912 Missouri Valley honors with Nebraska, that snob from just west.
As a bonus, the brilliant 41-year-old coach even deploys the word “neat.”
“The neat thing about this group of seniors that we have,” Matt Campbell said, “is all 16 have become the best version of themselves they can be.” Then there’s that junior Arizonan quarterback, Brock Purdy, and in speaking of Purdy, Campbell managed to latch onto a crucial life truth, perhaps rare for oblivious football coaches. He spoke of “the courage to continue to improve,” and said, “You know, I think sometimes you see guys at the quarterback position or maybe players in general that have success early in their careers, and they quit improving.”
There seems little of that with Campbell, who played defensive line at Mount Union, and if you don’t know about Mount Union, you should know that many a team through time has tangled with those Ohioan Purple Raiders and exited the fray with regret.
The gold medal for team of the year goes to Rice, and you may quibble with that, should you have a hankering for being wrong. It’s not just because Rice just pulled off the upset of the year, one of those occasional college football upsets so inconceivable that the score cannot be true, such that you wonder whether your lifetime consumption of products such as wine and bourbon must have finally kicked the senses permanently off-kilter.
No, first off, just check Rice’s schedule.
Sept. 3: at Houston (postponed)
Sept. 10: Army (canceled)
Sept. 17: LSU (canceled)
Sept. 24: Lamar (canceled)
Oct. 3: idle
Oct. 10: idle
Oct. 17: idle
Oct. 24: Middle Tennessee (loss, 40-34, two overtimes)
Oct. 31: at Southern Mississippi (win, 30-6)
Nov. 7: at UTSA (postponed)
Nov. 14: at Louisiana Tech (postponed)
Nov. 21: at North Texas (loss, 27-17)
Nov. 28: UTEP (canceled)
Dec. 5: at No. 21 Marshall (win, 20-0)
Why, if that isn’t a 2020 path to get to 2-2, what is? It’s one thing that the Owls went to mighty Marshall as a 24-point underdog and shocked a proud program to its first home zero since 1982, another that they had refrained from just dozing off sometime earlier this season.
“And what our defense did, the five turnovers, the shutout, I guess the first shutout by a Rice football team of a ranked opponent since 1960, just how grimy we were,” third-year head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We were exactly who we wanted to be. It was intellectual brutality all over the field.”
As if to emblematize the era further, Rice even got offended when rugged, lunch-pail Marshall (then 7-0) won the toss and elected to receive. It got further peeved when, on fourth and 10 from the Rice 27-yard line, the Thundering Herd went for it for some lavish icing of further disrespect.
“Marshall’s whole M.O. is they’re a simple team and they just kind of go out and they execute and they expect themselves to be better than you,” said a Rice linebacker with an impossibly good name, Blaze Alldredge. “And you have them come and disrespect us and take the ball and then go for it on fourth down and kind of act like they’re better than us, and we showed them today they’re not.”
“You know,” Bloomgren said, “we take that stuff personally.”
You know, we didn’t know that, but boy, we know now. Even with a second-string quarterback (JoVoni Johnson) who hadn’t thrown a pass all year and a running back (Ari Broussard) who used to be a linebacker, the Owls left Marshall quarterback Grant Wells with five interceptions piled atop his four all season beforehand, and they left the Herd with nothing, literally nothing.
Yet college football always teems with stories inside the story, every program with stories and stories inside stories. So there’s this: On Naeem Smith’s 36-yard interception return in the third quarter, the lead blocker downfield would be Alldredge, his roommate. And here’s a reminder about the best thing about sports, that it remains the place where a guy named Blaze from near Orlando and a guy named Naeem from Iowa City wind up forever entwined — in friendship and in their academic awards at a great school and in the eternal video replay of a game Smith called “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Naeem is a guy that I don’t think gets enough credit,” Alldredge said. “You know, part of the reason I even switched my number [to 6] this year was because in my head I see us as a LeBron [James] and a [Dwyane] Wade [Smith wears No. 3], and you know, I definitely think he might have showed he might be LeBron and I might be D. Wade!”
And: “That’s my brother, I love him.”
Even amid all the lousy, the love is in the air.