Cincinnati and Michigan State show, in different ways, that staying undefeated is really hard


In the final three minutes of Saturday’s slugfest against Tulsa, Cincinnati had eight chances to lose a football game, and yet it won.

There are two ways to tell this story. In one, Cincinnati failed miserably once more. By ranking the Bearcats sixth last week, the College Football Playoff committee sent a clear message that, for them, the playoff race is a beauty pageant, and Cincinnati would be lucky to win Miss Congeniality. A close win over Navy, a lackluster game against Tulane, and now this, a down-to-the-wire nail-biter against three-win Tulsa. If all that cheese on a bowl of Skyline Chili doesn’t give Cincinnati fans a heart attack, this team certainly will.

In the other story, Cincinnati’s defense did something legendary. It was a near-miracle that Tulsa had even one shot to win the football game in the end, cutting a 16-point lead to eight, driving deep into Cincinnati territory. But Deshawn Pace stood up Sam Crawford Jr. inches from a first down, and the game appeared over. Then Desmond Ridder fumbled, and the Bearcats’ D got to do the whole thing over again. Once more, it delivered, recovering a fumble in the end zone after yet another failed fourth-down try.

We know which narrative will dominate the next round of committee rankings. Cincinnati is not afforded grace because it is part of a league a step behind the big boys. Never mind the win at Notre Dame. Never mind the 18 consecutive regular-season wins. Never mind the late-game heroics Saturday. The proof of Cincinnati’s second-class status is inherent in its very being.

But look at the rest of Saturday’s results, and it’s clear how hard it is to win a football game.

It is hard to beat pesky underdogs, as Michigan State learned. This wasn’t exactly Purdue‘s Super Bowl, to use the old coaching cliche, since the Boilermakers already have a win over a top-five team this year, but witness Jackson Anthrop‘s wild touchdown catch and appreciate that there were no rules in this fight. The play looked like Purdue coach Jeff Brohm had hastily assembled a call from those refrigerator magnets with random words on them: Double, reverse, flea-flicker, throwback, screen. It was a playbook Mad Libs. Plays like that make winning hard.

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Purdue gets fancy as they run a flea-flicker that results in a screen pass leading to a 39-yard Jackson Anthrop touchdown.

It’s hard to beat the season’s biggest disappointments, too. North Carolina opened the season No. 10 in the rankings, but was just 4-4 when it hosted Wake Forest — in a non-conference game that may have been scheduled on a dare after a few drinks. Wake had the Heels on the ropes, up 14 late in the third quarter. Deacons QB Sam Hartman accounted for seven TDs. Wake had 615 yards of offense. And it lost, 58-55. It was the second straight year the Deacons blew a big lead late to the Heels, because winning is hard.

It’s hard to beat teams down a dozen players with a coach just finishing out the season after already being fired. Alabama learned that Saturday, narrowly escaping LSU 20-14.

It’s hard to beat teams that are hamstrung by recruiting only the best and brightest players, as Oregon learned Saturday. The Ducks struggled to put away Washington, despite those mediocre academic standards, because winning is hard.

(OK, stuff like this makes winning a little bit easier.)

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Down eight with two minutes left, Washington elects to punt, but the snap goes out of the end zone for a safety, icing the win for Oregon.

Winning was easy for Ohio State for the better part of a month, when the opposition included Akron and Rutgers and Indiana. But against a Nebraska team, the Buckeyes once again looked sluggish, despite the 26-17 final score, because winning is hard.

Baylor, Auburn, Mississippi State, Kentucky — all ranked teams, all lost.

Indeed, through 10 weeks, we’ve seen 42 ranked teams lose to unranked foes already. The polls have meant little against the upstart poll assassins. (OK, we’re being told a version of that name has been trademarked already. Our apologies.)

We’ve been spoiled a bit by 2020 Alabama and 2019 LSU and 2018 Clemson. At the end of each season, as those teams celebrated amid confetti, it was fair to wonder if they might be the best college football teams to ever play. That’s a high standard to set for every champion that follows. Winning is hard, even if Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney occasionally make it look otherwise.

And when the rankings are revealed again on Tuesday, there’s a good chance the committee will understand how hard winning is, too. It will give Alabama the benefit of the doubt, despite its loss to a (then-unranked) Texas A&M or its close games against Tennessee and Florida and LSU. It will understand that Oregon, who lost to a Stanford team with an offense that’s used to soothe colicky babies, can’t blow out every opponent it faces. It will see Michigan and Ohio State and Texas A&M and Notre Dame and Michigan State and understand that escaping the grind of a season isn’t just about the quality of the teams you play but the accumulation of opportunities you face when anything — everything — can go wrong.

Cincinnati faced eight of those opportunities in the final two minutes Saturday and it won.

That’s a story that should matter to the committee, but sometimes, appreciating a win is hard, too.

Texas drops fourth straight

For the fourth straight week, Texas climbed to a halftime lead. For the fourth straight week, the Longhorns slipped on a banana peel in the second half.

This time, it was against Iowa State, which monkeyed around through 30 minutes and trailed Texas 7-3 at the half. After the break, however, Iowa State chimped — err, chipped — away at the Longhorns’ D again and again, ultimately winning 30-7.

If anyone assumed Steve Sarkisian would be a prime mate for Texas when the Longhorns hired him this year, the early tenure has been served notice the rebuilding job is a big one. Texas has now dropped four straight, and Bijan Robinson was held without a touchdown for the first time this season.

Texas will have to pray for better mojo in its final three games — against Kansas, West Virginia and Kansas State — needing two wins to get bowl eligible or leave Sarkisian with a monkey on his back for the entire offseason.

Big day for Texas A&M

As Saturdays go, they don’t get much better than the one Jimbo Fisher had this week.

On the field, Texas A&M survived a war of attrition against Auburn, riding tailbacks Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane to a 20-3 victory. The Aggies now have wins over both Alabama and Auburn this season — a rare feat. The last two teams to beat both the Tide and Tigers in the same season each went on to win the national championship (2019 LSU and 2016 Clemson). Before that, the last team to do it was … Texas A&M, behind Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in 2012.

But in a twist that has utterly baffled Florida coach Dan Mullen, the Aggies also managed to recruit in-season and landed the No. 1 player in the 2022 class on Saturday, too. Defensive tackle Walter Nolen committed to Texas A&M, meaning Fisher could sign the top overall recruit for the first time since landing another defensive tackle at Florida State, Mario Edwards Jr. in 2012. That signing also proved to be a harbinger for a national title one year later.

As it stands, this year’s Aggies are now 6-2 and could move up into the committee’s top 10 next week, putting Fisher in position to make a New Year’s Six bowl for the second year in a row. Translation: It’s time for another contract extension.

Florida hits rock bottom

Each week, it seems the question is asked anew: How can things get worse for Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators?

It’s going to be hard to top Saturday’s answer.

South Carolina‘s starting QB was hurt. The former grad assistant the Gamecocks promoted to second string was also hurt. The third-string QB, Jason Brown, had not taken a snap in a game in which the score was within three touchdowns in his career. The Gamecocks hadn’t topped 27 points against a single FBS opponent so far this year with any of them at QB.

So, of course, South Carolina demolished the Gators 40-17.

It was Florida’s third loss in a row, and dropped the Gators to 2-8 in their last 10 games against Power 5 opponents.

It’s certainly possible Mullen is attempting to pull off a George Costanza move, as when the cantankerous “Seinfeld” character tried to get fired so he could accept a job with the Mets. While hiring Mullen would be exactly the type of offseason move we might expect from the Mets, however, it still seems unlikely.

It may be that it’s some sort of elaborate piece of performance art, like when Joaquin Phoenix pretended to go off the deep end on Letterman, but it was just for a movie. Mullen’s probably not that good an actor, though.

It’s possible that Mullen and Ron Zook were in the same hot tub when it was struck by lightning and they switched bodies in some sort of “Freaky Friday” situation, but if that was the case, why isn’t Mullen recruiting better?

No, there’s only one rational explanation for what’s happened to Florida: It’s the media’s fault. Or maybe the band. Yes, definitely the band’s fault.

You can’t go home again

Matt Corral ruined the homecoming for former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze as he threw for 324 yards and a touchdown in the Rebels’ 27-14 win over Liberty.

It was Freeze’s first game back in Oxford since his ignominious resignation following use of an escort service, which proved to be fodder for the Ole Miss social media account. After the game, the official Ole Miss Twitter feed delivered some particularly pointed jabs at Freeze — from a parody of his blusterous call for evidence of recruiting violations to his infamous game coaching from a hospital bed.

It’s possible the tweets won’t be regarded as an integral part of Mississippi’s rich literary satires, but fans sure found them funny. The administration, however — not so much.

In the end, the tweets were deleted, never to be seen again — until they’re uncovered during a deposition by Houston Nutt’s lawyers.

Quick hitters

* With its win over No. 3 Michigan State, Purdue now has 17 wins over top-five teams while unranked itself. That’s six more than any other program has in the AP poll era (since 1936). The next closest are Illinois and USC with 11 each, and Michigan State with 10. That three of the top four on this list come from the same league, however, might suggest the Big Ten has a long history of overrated top-five teams.

* Turns out, it really was Gary Patterson holding TCU back this whole time. Or, at least it seems that way for this week. In their first game after Patterson’s departure, the Horned Frogs upset Baylor 30-28 behind QB Chandler Morris, who threw for 461 yards in his first career start. It’s the most by a QB making his first start since Luke Falk threw for 471 in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and Morris was the first TCU QB to throw for 400 in a game since 2016. Change can be cleansing.

* North Carolina QB Sam Howell threw for 216 yards and ran for 104 more in the win over Wake Forest. It was Howell’s fifth time topping 100 rushing yards this season, to go with five 300-yard passing games, too. The other QBs to do that in the playoff era are Lamar Jackson (2016 and 2017) and Deshaun Watson (2016). Jackson and Watson finished 1-2 in Heisman voting in 2016, and Jackson was a finalist again in 2017.

* The Commander-in-Chief’s trophy remains up for grabs after Army toppled Air Force 21-14 in overtime Saturday. While the Black Knights’ win means the season-ending Army-Navy game will determine the trophy’s winner, the final score also added another cover for one of the safest bets in sports. The Las Vegas total for Saturday’s game was 37.5, and even overtime couldn’t get the two teams over the number. Since 2005, the under is 40-9-1 in games between two service academies.

Heisman Five

It was a boom-or-bust week for the Heisman hopefuls. Kenneth Walker had 166 total yards, but he also fumbled in a loss to Purdue. C.J. Stroud threw for 405 in a win over Nebraska, but the Buckeyes never looked particularly comfortable, and Stroud threw two picks. Sam Hartman had seven touchdowns for Wake Forest, but his two INTs led directly to a North Carolina upset win, ending Wake’s undefeated season. So, who survived?

1. Alabama LB Will Anderson

Perhaps we’ve been hyping the wrong defender for the Heisman. No offense to Georgia’s Jordan Davis, who is still more than deserving of serious consideration for the award, but he’s also part of the best defense in the country on a team that’s played exactly one close game. At Alabama, the Tide’s very playoff survival can be accounted for by Anderson, who has been the best player on the field in nearly every game he’s played this season. Anderson almost single-handedly kept LSU at bay in the Tide’s 20-14 win Saturday, finishing with 12 tackles (eight solo), four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a pass breakup and two QB hurries. Anderson now has 21 TFLs in nine games, putting him within striking distance of becoming the first player in a decade with 30. He’s been an absolute wrecking ball for the Tide, and at this point, it seems clear he’s the best player in the country.

2. Georgia DT Jordan Davis

Another week, another game in which Georgia’s defense didn’t allow a touchdown. Again, Davis did little on the stat sheet, but performed his job perfectly. Davis’ role is to set up third-and-longs for Georgia’s D, and Missouri managed just 162 yards on 46 first- and second-down plays Saturday, with just 26% considered a successful play. The result was 11 third-and-long plays for Missouri, and a 43-6 win for Georgia.

3. Alabama QB Bryce Young

Young has a knack for making it feel like he might have had a lackluster game, only for a quick review of the stat sheet to show he was absolutely terrific once again. That was certainly true Saturday as Alabama’s offense largely stalled thanks to a brutal rushing performance (just six yards on 26 carries), but Young did enough — 302 passing yards, two TDs — to secure the win. He’s still the betting favorite to win the Heisman, even if he’s probably the second-best player on his own team.

4. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett

Pickett reignited his Heisman campaign by torching Duke on Saturday, throwing for three TDs, running for another, and passing for 416 yards in Pitt’s 54-29 win. Pickett has now accounted for nearly 1,000 yards of offense the past two weeks, and for the season, he’s got 29 passing TDs, 3,171 passing yards and just three picks. In the past decade, the only other Power 5 QB to post those numbers through nine games was Florida’s Kyle Trask, last season.

5. Syracuse RB Sean Tucker

Tucker picked a good week for Syracuse to have an open date. He avoided the implosions around him, and he remains the nation’s leader in scrimmage yards at 1,505. That’s important because, since 2012, every player to lead the Power 5 in scrimmage yards has finished in the top 10 in Heisman balloting, and five finished in the top five.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Officially, 30,677 people showed up to watch Cal and Arizona play a football game Saturday, presumably many of whom weren’t school employees, immediate family members or fulfilling community service requirements. They were treated to a genuine spectacle of misery, despair and ugliness rarely seen outside of the DMV. It was like watching Dan Mullen dance — you’re horrified, yet you can’t turn away. And so it was that these two teams — a combined 3-13 this season entering the game — slumped into the final five minutes of action tied at 3-3, a pillow fight for the ages.

Oh, sure, you could appreciate how Cal battled despite a flu-ravaged locker room which left the Bears’ depth chart perilously undermanned. Or perhaps it’s worth celebrating Arizona’s eventual 10-3 win, the first by the Wildcats in more than two years. Or perhaps you’re friends with Cal’s Jamieson Sheahan, and you were just really excited to see him punt 11 times.

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Michael Wiley runs up the middle untouched for the 10-yard touchdown to put Arizona ahead.

But none of that is what really mattered, which is that, according to Tibetan Buddhism, it is only through pain and suffering that we can achieve true happiness, and so those who watched this game from start to finish have now become the truly enlightened among us.

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Arizona students flood the field after the Wildcats secure their first win since Oct. 5, 2019.

Under-the-radar play of the week

We don’t know what the guy in the red pullover did in this port-o-potty before the Iowa State game, but whatever it was, the Cyclones knew how to celebrate it.





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