The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football is lavished in senselessness after upsets of Georgia and Wisconsin

Illinois kicker James McCourt celebrates with teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against Wisconsin as time expired.
Illinois kicker James McCourt celebrates with teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against Wisconsin as time expired. (Holly Hart/AP)
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What senselessness might loom up ahead? Might we get a college football season lavished with senselessness after recent years of so much Alabama, Clemson, Clemson, Alabama? Could we get Oregon as a College Football Playoff candidate or LSU opening as the committee’s No. 1 just before it rolls into Tuscaloosa against a dinged-up Tua Tagovailoa? What might happen with Penn State? Might somebody with such authority up and put a prudent hold on all wagering on games involving Brigham Young?

Hopes abound. Senselessness, that prized quality of a lunatic sport, hadn’t gotten much of a go early on this season. Some of us missed our senselessness. But senselessness has gushed back the past two Saturdays, in a South Carolina upset at Georgia that made no sense, then an Illinois upset of Wisconsin that made less than no sense.

A question to Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst, his face drained of even the limited joy it sometimes evinces: “Was there any indication [in preparation] something was off?”

Chryst, eloquently: “No.”

Wisconsin, nothing if not ironclad and earnest, appeared in Champaign as leaky and cocky. It lost to an Illinois team many believed had disbanded operations and disappeared, with a 4-26 Big Ten record during Coach Lovie Smith’s tenure, and with two of those wins coming at Rutgers and at Rutgers. It ensured that after Wisconsin destroyed Michigan and after Michigan had gone to Illinois and won, 42-25, Wisconsin had gone to Illinois, lost, 24-23, and approached its trip Saturday to Ohio State looking like prey.

Michigan loses to Penn State, and Jim Harbaugh’s signature win will have to come another day

Maybe such slights will help Wisconsin in a way being a ­30½ -point favorite could not.

Where it had allowed four touchdowns all season, none relevant to outcomes, it allowed three to Illinois on plays of 29 yards or more, all relevant to the outcome. It missed a 37-yard field goal late in the third quarter. It couldn’t score a touchdown from first down at the 3-yard line with 10 minutes left. Its great running back, Jonathan Taylor, lunged for further yardage with 7:12 left, while linebacker Jake Hansen’s hand looped over Taylor’s shoulder and down near the ball, shoving it loose. Its first-year starting quarterback, Jack Coan, with one interception all season, managed to match that total on one leaping play by cornerback Tony Adams with 2:32 left. Losing on the road is common, losing on the road before 37,363 in a 60,670-seater less common.

And as senselessness always confers its magic, consider that Illinois kicker James McCourt apparently blacked out in the aftermath of his game-winning, 39-yard field goal as time expired. Realize you could travel far and wide and farther and not hear an athlete describe an athletic experience so vividly.

Here’s McCourt, as recorded by Matthew Stevens of IlliniMaven: “So I made the kick and saw [tight end] Griffin Palmer and gave him a big hug and our helmets got stuck together and I fell. There must have been 10 or so bodies to stack vertically on top of me, and all I can remember seeing is darkness.”

Here’s McCourt, as recorded by Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, describing his ensuing trip upward and onto his teammates’ shoulders: “I thought I woke up from a dream.”

Damn, that college football.

You look up, and here’s Oregon again. It’s an Oregon that plays stout defense, No. 7 in the land in yards allowed per play, and everyone knows that’s just senseless. It’s an Oregon at 6-1 and just one late, 26-yard Auburn heroic from 7-0. It’s an Oregon that gives the vanished Pac-12 Conference a plausible chance, so we must monitor these upcoming Oregon games: Washington State at home next weekend, at Southern California, Arizona at home, at Arizona State, Oregon State at home.

It’s an Oregon that lost to Washington by a combined ­108-24 in 2016 and 2017 yet surmounted deficits of 28-14 early in the third quarter and ­31-21 late in the third quarter as future NFL employee Justin Herbert directed drives covering 75 and 70 yards — in Seattle — to lead the Ducks to a 35-31 win.

Here, after years of a muddled LSU offense that might have inspired further fan drinking, comes a pyrotechnic LSU offense that might inspire further fan drinking. The 36-13 win at Mississippi State proved wildly impressive after the loud home win over Florida. Now comes Auburn. Then comes the annual pre-Alabama off week. Then comes Alabama.

It will be an Alabama perhaps still monitoring quarterback Tagovailoa’s high ankle sprain, suffered Saturday night in the ­35-13 win over Tennessee. That will be some spotlighted monitoring, because the last quarterback to rescue Alabama from a Tagovailoa ankle injury, Jalen Hurts, cannot help Alabama because he plays nowadays at Oklahoma, where he ranks No. 1 nationally in passer rating.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State, ranks No. 2. Tagovailoa ranks No. 3. Justin Fields, who transferred from Georgia to Ohio State, ranks No. 4.

Even the passer ratings are a psychodrama.

College football winners and losers: Wisconsin shocker takes the shine off Ohio State game

Tennessee at Alabama somehow became one as well, when Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano tried a sneak on fourth and one at the goal line in the fourth quarter with the score 28-13, and Guarantano fumbled, and Alabama’s Trevon Diggs returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, and Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt excoriated Guarantano with a quick yank at Guarantano’s face mask. Such behavior could be wrong, or it could be just football — there’s an argument underway — but what’s not arguable is that good coaches don’t require such acts of insecurity.

We move forward with the hope of further senselessness with Penn State something of a factor. It stands 7-0 after its 28-21 win over Michigan, reestablishing itself after a dip from 11-3 (2016) to 11-2 (2017) to 9-4 (2018), a dip both mild to all and unforgivable to some. Asked to describe these Lions, first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford said, “Fast, physical and just a team that really will do anything for a win.” Surely any guy who can withstand St. Ignatius in an Ohio high school state title game (2015) has got some mustard to him.

Surely any guy or woman who would wager on Brigham Young has got some derring-do to him. The Cougars (3-4) have epitomized senselessness, and bravo to that. They have traveled thrice to the Eastern time zone. They have won at Tennessee and at home against Southern California. They have lost at Toledo, which is surely no sin among football intellectuals, but they have lost at South Florida, which might just be.

Then on Saturday night, in cold, rainy, windy weather one might label biblical if one were into that sort of thing, Brigham Young brought out a fresh starting quarterback who just got the nod Wednesday night, Baylor Romney, gambled (uh oh) successfully on a late fourth and one with a Romney sneak and gave then-No. 14 Boise State a ­28-25 plucking from the list of the unbeaten.

“We were more aggressive this game even though we had some weird weather,” wide receiver Matt Bushman told reporters in Provo, Utah, even adding: “We were just as confident as we could be. We believed.”

Such belief might have made limited sense, but these guys play a sport in which a kicker might drill a field goal to provide a victory of senseless beauty, black out in the celebration and wake as if from a dream.