Iowa’s formula for success in the first half of the season always had a sheen of semi-permanence to it. Not the part about the quality defense, which was largely picked apart by one receiver Saturday but will probably revert to form again soon enough.
It was the reliance on forcing turnovers, a chronically fickle thing, that wasn’t sustainable, especially in combination with a far-from-explosive offense. The takeaways made a difference against Iowa State, helped the Hawkeyes bury Maryland quickly (though that might have been a standard-issue Iowa smothering even without that Friday night’s interception-palooza) and played a role in last week’s rally against Penn State.
Iowa (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) benefited from only one giveaway against Purdue, and even that didn’t go anywhere. The Boilermakers’ TJ Sheffield, so eager to put Purdue up three possessions, reached for the pylon after hauling in a catch with about two minutes left in the third quarter. He lost his grip of the ball, resulting in a touchback. And after Iowa went three-and-out, Purdue put together a 46-yard touchdown drive to effectively finish things off.
And maybe it should have been easier to see this coming from the Boilermakers (4-2, 2-1), for a variety of reasons. They’ve played commendably on defense all year, even in a 27-13 loss at Notre Dame. They were coming off an open date. And they’re now a ridiculous 6-10 all-time against teams ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.
Much credit should go to wideout David Bell, who had 11 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown. Yes, there were a couple big plays in there. But mostly, it was 10-to-20-yard pickups on the right side as Iowa decided it was better to risk giving up first downs rather than touchdowns.
The upshot for the Hawkeyes — and any team dinged with its first loss, like Alabama and Penn State last week — is the absence of dominant teams means there probably won’t be a surplus of undefeated teams come December. There may not even be any.
Everyone in the Pac-12 already has a loss. Everyone in the ACC except for Wake Forest has stumbled. The SEC’s undefeated complement is down to Georgia after its defeat of Kentucky. The Big Ten’s unbeaten list is down to Michigan and Michigan State, and they meet in two weeks. And on, and on.
Here's the one incontrovertible bit of math for the Hawkeyes and the rest of the one-loss cohort. No matter the results the rest of the way, the playoff committee is going to take four teams. Not two, not three, not five or more. Four.
Which means one game isn’t going to keep it out of the playoff. Two losses probably will. In the absence of truly great teams this season, that’s worth remembering for a lot of programs that have already had their flaws revealed.
LSU. It was a back-to-basics sort of day for the Tigers, at least on offense. In a perfect world, the target would have been the loaded offense of two years ago. In practice, LSU looked a bit more like the 1980s Washington Football Team, running counter after counter and daring No. 20 Florida to stop it.
The Gators never really could, which is why LSU came away with a rollicking 49-42 victory in Death Valley just a week after a listless performance at Kentucky.
To be clear: There wasn’t much reason to believe the Tigers (4-3, 2-2 SEC) could ignite a rushing attack ranked 127th in the FBS. Last week was the first time LSU surpassed four yards a carry, but it was also a game the Tigers had plenty of second-half garbage time to pick up some soft yardage.
Not against Florida.
Tyrion Davis-Price began the day with 67 carries for 287 yards and two touchdowns on the season. Against the Gators, he managed another 287 yards plus three scores, all on 36 carries. It was an LSU single-game record.
The rest of the schedule is still daunting for the Tigers, who visit No. 13 Mississippi and No. 5 Alabama in their next two outings. Chances are, their remaining opponents will adapt to a classic play call better than defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and Florida did. Still, this was the high-water mark for LSU since celebrating a national title in January 2020, and that counts for something.
Caleb Williams. The freshman quarterback made a splash last week while saving the Sooners against Texas in relief of Spencer Rattler.
Considering what he did in his first career start, he might just be saving Oklahoma’s season, too.
Williams completed 18 of 23 for 295 yards and four touchdowns while tacking on 66 yards and a score on nine carries as the Sooners (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) struck early and often in a 52-31 triumph over Texas Christian.
Oklahoma scored on its first four possessions and eight of its first nine. Since Williams took over for Rattler in the middle of the second quarter against Texas, the Sooners have produced points on 16 of 21 possessions.
Bottom line: So far, offense is coming a lot easier for Oklahoma with Williams taking snaps. Until that changes — and it probably won’t next week at Kansas — the Sooners would be wise to stick with the first-year player out of Washington’s Gonzaga College High School.
Pittsburgh. Hello, ACC Coastal Division favorite by default. The Panthers weren’t especially fancy in their 28-7 victory at Virginia Tech, but they were plenty effective. Kenny Pickett — who has as good a case as anyone for the ACC’s player of the year honor at midseason — threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and the Pitt defense allowed just 224 total yards.
The Panthers (5-1, 2-0 ACC) are at least two games up in the loss column on everyone in the Coastal Division except for Virginia Tech (3-3, 1-1), which Pitt leads by a game and also owns a tiebreaker over. Next up for Pat Narduzzi’s team is Clemson, and a victory over the Tigers would ensure Pitt would head into November in firm control of the division.
Oklahoma State. Letting the Cowboys — who seem to have a wacky comeback in them at least once a season — hang around is never a great idea. Texas learned the hard way Saturday.
The No. 25 Longhorns were up two touchdowns and were in the red zone with less than six minutes left in the first half. But Jason Taylor II’s 85-yard interception return for a touchdown helped to make things much more of a jump ball.
By the time Jaylen Warren had wrapped up a 193-yard rushing day and the Cowboys (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) had scored the final 19 points, No. 12 Oklahoma State had a 32-24 victory. It was the second time this season the Cowboys erased a double-digit deficit, and the 16th time in coach Mike Gundy’s tenure they rallied from down 12 or more to win.
Jerome Ford. The Cincinnati running back didn’t need to put in more than a half-day, and really, neither did the Bearcats. Ford rushed 16 times for 176 yards and four touchdowns before the break as Cincinnati cruised past Central Florida, 56-21.
Ford got a little work in the second half, finishing the day with 189 yards. But a week after blasting Temple to open American Athletic Conference play, No. 3 Cincinnati (6-0, 2-0 American) again overwhelmed a league foe. That’s all the Bearcats can do to press a playoff case over the next seven weeks.
Michigan State. Didn’t play especially great. Took a punch from an Indiana team arguably playing for its season. Still won, 20-15, on the road and improved to 7-0.
That’s probably not going to be enough against the likes of No. 8 Michigan (Oct. 30), No. 6 Ohio State (Nov. 20) and No. 7 Penn State (Nov. 27), but no matter. Even one more victory seals the No. 10 Spartans’ best season since 2017.
Connecticut. There aren’t many FBS teams fully warranted in savoring a victory over an Ivy League team, but the Huskies (1-7) are one of them. Connecticut fended off Yale, 21-15, to end an 11-game losing streak and win for the first time since Oct. 26, 2019.
Order in Knoxville. It would seem a few too many Tennessee fans came prepared to, ahem, welcome Mississippi Coach Lane Kiffin back to town.
What else could explain the random detritus — a golf ball that wound up in Kiffin’s possession, mustard bottles and other impromptu projectiles — Tennessee fans littered the field at Neyland Stadium with after the Volunteers turned it over on downs in the final minute? It forced a 22-minute delay, during which cheerleaders and the Tennessee band both vacated the field.
But the game was far from over. Tennessee burned off all of its timeouts and forced Mississippi to punt. The Volunteers even threatened a go-ahead score despite an injury to quarterback Hendon Hooker, only to come up shy of a touchdown to seal a 31-26 loss.
Kiffin, of course, was the Volunteers’ coach in 2009, a one-year stint that didn’t sit well with Tennessee fans then or now. His first return as a head coach was bound to be a little bit of a circus; it just didn’t have to be like that.
Arkansas. Well, the whole “football renaissance in Fayetteville” story line was fun while it lasted. The Razorbacks soared to a 4-0 September that included victories over Texas and Texas A&M, but have now dropped three in a row after a 38-23 setback at home against Auburn.
Now, while the air is out of that balloon, here’s an honest reckoning about Sam Pittman’s team. It was thoroughly outmatched at Georgia, which is no crime in 2021. It was a play away from beating Mississippi on the road last week. And Saturday, it couldn’t solve Auburn’s passing game, which was no one’s idea of either special or woeful in the first half of the season.
So here’s the reality for the No. 17 Hogs: They went from being awful in 2018 and 2019 to spunky and feisty but not really that good last year to somewhere in the middle of the pack in the SEC this year. In the macro, they haven’t skipped any steps and haven’t regressed. The micro just makes it harder to see it that way.
Nebraska. There are worse teams than the Cornhuskers, of course. Just this month, they’ve demolished Northwestern and played undefeated Michigan tight. But it sure seems like they default to not getting out of their own way before long.
Down five late against Minnesota in the third quarter, Nebraska had a second-and-goal from the 2 and mustered only a yard before turning it over on downs. On its next possession, it missed a 27-yard field goal. Then a false start penalty helped torpedo a possession that ended with another turnover on downs. All the while, the margin remained the same.
Naturally, it was on the Huskers offense to change that — and it did when quarterback Adrian Martinez was sacked in the end zone for a safety with 4:45 to go. Five plays later, the Gophers’ Bryce Williams rumbled 56 yards on a worn-out Nebraska defense, and Minnesota had things in hand.
Nebraska’s 30-23 loss drops it to 3-5. It has lost five games in each of the last five seasons, the last four under Scott Frost. The Cornhuskers lost five games just five times between 1962 and 2016. With Ohio State and Iowa still to come, there’s a good chance Nebraska is home for the holidays yet again.
Duke. For many years, there was a simple phrase used to describe any time the Blue Devils looked like they never played football before: An autumn Saturday. But those moments of befuddlement became increasingly rare in David Cutcliffe’s coaching tenure, to the point they stand out far more now.
Saturday’s 48-0 loss at Virginia wasn’t the first of them in recent years against teams that weren’t exactly dynamos. There was a 59-7 scalding at the hands of Wake Forest in the 2018 regular season finale, when the Blue Devils had already won seven games. And a 49-6 pounding against Syracuse in 2019. And pick any of their last four losses last season, when the defense disappeared and Duke became Uke.
The Blue Devils’ defense abdicated again Saturday, allowing Virginia to score on all six of its first-half possessions while frittering away the opportunity to secure almost a half-dozen near-turnovers. Duke had four giveaways, a when-it-rains-it-pours bit of misery on a soggy day in Charlottesville.
At 3-4 and with Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech looming after an open date, Duke is staring at a third consecutive losing season — and looking more like the program Cutcliffe inherited than the one he led to six bowl trips in seven years between 2012 and 2018.