Predictions are not made in hindsight, and when it comes down to it I will still defend my decision to tab Texas as a top-10 team. (I certainly wasn't alone.) But even for the believers – or perhaps especially for the believers – it was clear enough coming into the season that if Mack Brown couldn't coax a BCS bid from this lineup, a veteran, blue-chip outfit that had paid its dues in 2011 and 2012 and emerged virtually intact for a run this fall, then it was time to drop the facade of "rebuilding" and recognize the ongoing malaise for what it really is. Past time, really. If it doesn't happen for the 2013 Longhorns, a team that checks every box, then at age 62 it's not going to happen for this coach.
Saturday night, a little more than six quarters into the season, you could actually pinpoint the moment when the heart of the "up and coming" narrative rips in half.
At that point, the same BYU offense last seen slogging its way to 16 points in a loss to Virginia had already rolled up more than 350 yards on the ground alone, and unheralded, one-dimensional quarterback Taysom Hill had already scored on runs covering 68 yards and 20 yards in the first half. But it was Hill's third touchdown run, on the other side of halftime adjustments, that marked the point of no return, when it became abundantly clear to everyone that this isn't going to stop. It didn't: With a simple inside-out adjustment on the veer, BYU went on to run for more yards than any BYU offense has ever gained, and more than any Texas defense has ever allowed. With 259, Hill finished a few yards shy of Vince Young's 2005 disemboweling of Oklahoma State for the most prolific rushing performance by a quarterback of the past decade.
The records, though, are just shorthand for getting across what everyone plainly saw with their own eyes, which for Texas fans was a team that has not only not improved from the disappointments of the past three years, but has apparently regressed. I was going to write "regressed beyond recognition," but that might be too kind – this group is all-too-recognizable as the same one that's been blown to smithereens in even grislier fashion by Oklahoma two years in a row, each time sending nascent pangs of optimism up in smoke. Those lopsided losses to the Sooners were also points of no return for their respective seasons. At least this year they had the decency to snuff out the embers in September.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has already been led to the guillotine today, a predictable outcome for a guy Brown couldn't bring himself to defend when reporters asked about Diaz's fate after the game. But that does nothing to lower the temperature for Brown, who for the first time in his 15-year tenure has clearly lost the benefit of the doubt. The skeptics now will be louder, and there will be more of them, almost certainly including some of the few people who have an actual say in his fate. The next five games bring Ole Miss, which matches up with Texas athletically better than BYU did, and may come into Austin next Saturday as a favorite; Kansas State, which has beaten the Longhorns five times in a row; a trip to Iowa State, where Texas lost in 2010; the annual measuring stick against Oklahoma; and a trip to TCU, which won convincingly last year in Austin. If there's any hope for Brown to return to good graces, he may have to win all of them, most especially the one in Dallas. Now that we've actually seen this team on the field, though, instead of on paper, hope is harder than ever to come by.
• Washington State 10, USC 7. For some context on just how bad USC is right now, it might be helpful to recall just how bad Washington State is. Last year, Mike Leach's first as head coach, the Cougars won a single Pac-12 game, upsetting Washington in overtime in the season finale, and had the ignoble distinction of serving as Colorado's one and only victim in a 1–11 debacle. Wazzu finished 99th in the final F/+ rankings, which was actually slightly worse than in their last year under the historically inept Paul Wulff. The offensive line allowed more sacks than any other FBS front. That's the team that just beat USC. In the Coliseum.
What's worse is that Washington State looked like that team. The Cougars achieved zilch offensively, failing to cross midfield at any point between a first-quarter interception in the end zone and a 50-yard connection from Connor Halliday to Dominique Williams in the final five minutes, setting up an improbable go-ahead field goal. That play alone covered more ground than the rest of Wazzu's second-half snaps combined, and it was entirely the result of a missed tackle that allowed Williams to break yet another dinky route for a big gain.
Which brings us to the Trojans, proud new owners of the worst performance of the century by a USC offense. That only sounds like hyperbole if you had the good sense not to watch it. In the first half, quarterback Cody Kessler supplied Washington State with its only touchdown, courtesy of a pick-six interception return on an egregiously under-thrown slant; in the second half, SC missed two field goals (one blocked, one wide) and never came close to the end zone on the ultra-conservative stylings of Max Wittek. (Once Wittek was forced to throw the Trojans back into the game on their final series, he was picked on the same nothing slant route to put the loss on ice, hanging the ball too far in front of his target where Kessler had left it too far behind.) Between them, the sophomores completed 11 passes for 54 yards, or 2.6 yards per attempt. Marqise Lee, the most dynamic play-maker in the nation in 2012, touched the ball ten times as a rusher and receiver for a grand total of 24 yards. Long completion of the night to any receiver: Eight yards.
Again, USC literally has not been this bad – home-loss-to-Washington-State bad – at any point in the 21st Century, or for all but a very few, very forgettable moments of the twentieth. This is a truly despondent team with legitimate last-place potential, and I say that knowing full well they share a division with Colorado. I try to make a point of never saying anything too final about a coach's future, i.e. that he will be or should be fired. As of this writing there is no indication that Lane Kiffin won't be given an opportunity to right the ship, or at least finish the season. But for this program, on the heels on the heels of last year's collapse, there is no way to paint Saturday night as anything less than a new low and a fireable offense.
• Miami 21, Florida 16. On paper, this is a quintessential "Life On the Margins" game – Florida's offense outgained Miami's by 200 yards, 413 to 212 – and there will be plenty to say in the next edition about the Gators' self-destructive relationships with turnovers and the red zone. (Not only did they give the ball away five times: Three of those giveaways came inside the UM 25-yard line, not including a turnover on downs in the second quarter.) Last year, Florida only committed 15 turnovers in 13 games, tied for fewest in the SEC, but nine of them came in the losses to Georgia and Louisville alone. When the floodgates open, even Florida's defense can't bail that fast.
Focusing too intently on turnovers and missed opportunities, though, risks leaving the impression that this is a fundamentally competent attack whose biggest problem is cleaning up a few untimely mistakes. The fact is, Florida's offense was a disaster waiting to happen throughout 2012, limping in alongside some pretty wretched offenses (Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri) at or near the bottom of the SEC in almost every major category. It's one thing to survive tense, low-scoring slugfests against Texas A&M and LSU; requiring bailouts to survive upset bids from Missouri and UL–Lafayette is another matter entirely. Although the Gators gained more yards against Miami – Jeff Driskel passed for 291, easily a career high – the ground game was non-existent against a defense that finished dead last in the ACC last year against the run, and leading receivers Solomon Patton (6 for 118) and Quintin Dunbar (7 for 98) haven't done anything in their careers to indicate that they can be reliable targets on a week-to-week basis. The light is certainly not coming on for Driskel, victimized on two brutal interceptions and a late, decisive sack on which he held on to the ball far too long in a hurry-up situation. So far, the only thing that's changed about this attack is that everyone is a year older and, from the looks of it, more careless with the ball.
• Oklahoma 16, West Virginia 7. Before kickoff in the Coliseum, the most frustratingly lo-fi game of the day was in Norman, where the Sooners and Mountaineers staged an uninspired rebuttal to last year's wild, point-a-minute shootout in Morgantown by generating four times as many turnovers (8) as touchdowns (2). (At one point in the second quarter, there were four lost fumbles between both offenses in a span of 24 plays.) The starting quarterbacks, Paul Millard and Trevor Knight, looked in over their heads against rebuilding defenses, with Millard failing to add to WVU's total following an early, 75-yard run by the excellently named Dreamius Smith, and Knight getting benched down the stretch for fan favorite Blake "Belldozer" Bell (who only led one successful field goal drive himself, although he also put them in position for a second kick that was missed). Neither team can go on expecting to win games like this with Oklahoma State and Baylor waiting on the big schedule, the major difference being that West Virginia is not really expected to. Knight ascended to the job in the last week of preseason camp on a gust of late-blooming hype, but the best guess with a trip to Notre Dame looming is that Bell's time has come.
• Georgia 41, South Carolina 30. Just because we need a little positive energy in here. Not that we learned anything especially new about Georgia's offense, beyond further confirmation that it is going to be exactly what it was supposed to be: Against a top-shelf, top-ten SEC defense, Herculean tailback Todd Gurley ground out 134 yards on 30 carries, tenderizing the Gamecocks in preparation for four touchdown passes from Aaron Murray. (Despite taking a few wholesome shots himself, Murray delivered arguably the best game of his career in a must-win situation, rebounding from a merely very good effort at Clemson to finish with an absurd efficiency rating of 244.2 while in close proximity to Jadeveon Clowney.) At one point, Gurley lost his helmet in the middle of a pile, spun out and kept charging downfield with dreds flapping, which seemed only fair to the guys who had to tackle him.
Again, though, the main points we knew, including the vulnerability of the defense against competent offenses, which South Carolina's certainly is. The important part is long-term: Not only did UGA clear the tallest hurdle in the SEC East, it also reentered the national conversation as a serious contender if/when the frontrunners in the BCS standings start falling like dominoes later in the season. An early, competitive road loss at Clemson is about as forgivable as losses get – certainly more so than last year's midseason flop at South Carolina, which didn't keep the Bulldogs from bouncing back to play for a BCS Championship bid in the SEC title game. Unlike last year, the remaining schedule includes one of the heavy hitters from the West (LSU), as well as Florida, and who knows how good Auburn is going to be by mid-November; then there's the matter of getting past Alabama or A&M in December, should the opportunity arise. But at least that opportunity still exists, and I think this team is in much better position to take advantage of it.
• Illinois 45, Cincinnati 17. Given the margin, my instinct here is to devalue Cincinnati, a team I thought had a chance to run the table (or come very close) heading into its season finale with Louisville, rather than get too overheated about Illinois, which remains Illinois. But Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase delivered one of the stat lines of the day, in direct contradiction to his one-dimensional scouting report: 26-of-37 passing, 312 yards, 4 touchdowns, zero turnovers, against a defense that effectively shut out Purdue in the opener. (The Boilermakers' only touchdown against Cincy in a 42–7 debacle came on a short field following a muffed punt.) The general consensus on Scheelhaase after three years in the job painted him as a good-not-great athlete who lacked the arm and, after a dismal junior campaign, the confidence to consistently challenge Big Ten defenses as a passer. That may still prove to be true; decisive as it was, this was still Illinois' first win over an FBS opponent since the 2012 opener against Western Michigan. (Seriously.) For the time being, though, it's probably safe to cancel their reservations for the conference cellar.
TIME TO RETHINK: Notre Dame's Defense. Michigan fans were very, very confident in the emergence of quarterback Devin Gardner as an all-purpose star, and aside from one blindingly horrendous play (see below), he was right on schedule against Notre Dame, leading the Wolverines to points on five of their first six possessions in the first half and adding two more touchdown passes to salt away a 41–30 win in the second. But 41 points is a long, long way from the six points Michigan managed last year in South Bend, which matched their number of turnovers in that game.
Even if you believe the Wolverines are better off with Gardner at quarterback under this particular coaching staff than they were last year with Denard Robinson (this seems fairly obvious by now), the difference is not dramatic enough to close a five-touchdown gap without some serious regression on the other side, and the Fighting Irish obliged. Personnel-wise, the only glaring difference from 2012 to 2013 is the absence of Manti Te'o patrolling the middle, and as much grief as he took earlier this year for his poor showing in the BCS title game – not to mention that other thing – it shouldn't come as any surprise that the defense misses the runner-up for the Heisman as a sideline-to-sideline patrolman who excelled at flashing into throwing lanes.
Michigan had significantly more yards (460) and twice as many points (41) as anyone managed against Notre Dame last year in regulation, and particularly abused a secondary that led the nation in limiting big plays. Against Alabama in January, the Irish were too preoccupied with Eddie Lacy between the tackles to devote enough bodies against the pass; against Michigan, they just flatly couldn't cover Jeremy Gallon. The pass rush that threatened to devour Robinson whole in 2012, led by Stephon Tuitt, was a nonfactor against Gardner, who coolly outmaneuvered most of the pressure while managing to keep his bearings downfield. (Presumably his telepathic mind-meld with Gallon helped in this regard.) It was as emboldening a coming-out party as one side had any right to expect, and as deflating a reality check as the other had feared.
Fresno's Fat Guy Touchdown. Up 20–0 on Cal Poly, the Bulldogs said "the hell with it" and called a hook-and-ladder with their All-Mountain West left tackle, Austin Wentworth. And it worked.
Shilique Calhoun, DT, Michigan State. After taking a fumble to the house last week against Western Michigan, Calhoun took it upon himself to score all of the touchdowns in the Spartans' win over South Florida, hitting paydirt on a four-yard fumble return the first quarter and a 56-yard interception return in the third. Of the Spartans' four defensive touchdowns this season, Calhoun has accounted for three, which is one more than the Spartan offense.
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/KR, Oregon. As high-profile as "Black Momba" is, the Ducks incinerate defenses so quickly, in so many different ways that his contributions sometimes feel under-valued. Against Virginia, he touched the ball 14 times as a rusher, receiver and return man, accounting for 183 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in a 59–10 blowout. On one of them, a 40-yarder down the sideline in the first quarter, he briefly exits the third dimension:
After the game, he left us with one of the quotes of the day: "Teams always talk in the first half. But as the game go by it slows down a little bit."
Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU. The offense got the headlines, as well it should for destroying an opposing coach's career in a matter of hours. But the Cougars' brightest star was every bit as visible in the course of racking up eight tackles, one sack and four quarterback hurries. Texas went three-and-out four times in the first half, and was never in position to threaten the Cougars' lead in the second.
Evil Richt. After tearing down the field for a touchdown on its opening possession, Georgia called for an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff for no reason whatsoever except screw you, that's why, and caught South Carolina napping on the recovery. Back-to-back possessions kept the already gassed Gamecock defense on the field for another four-and-a-half minutes, leading to a field goal to extend the early lead to 10–3. The tone was set: From there, Georgia only punted once and never trailed.
Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers took a 3–0 lead on their first possession at Tennessee, and proceeded to turn the ball over on five consecutive possessions in an eventual 52–20 loss. To be more specific, they turned it over on five consecutive plays, beginning with back-to-back interceptions by quarterback Michael Doughty that were returned by the Volunteers for back-to-back touchdowns. From there, WKU fumbled on consecutive snaps, setting up a Tennessee field goal and touchdown, respectively, and rounded out the first quarter with Doughty's third interception, leading to another UT touchdown at the start of the second quarter. At that point, the Vols led 31–3 with less than 70 yards of total offense.
That One Play by Devin Gardner. Right, that one.
Representatives of Tom Harmon's ghost released a statement denying their client's involvement in that play in any way whatsoever.
Jeff Driskel's First Interception. Driskel was not a start-to-finish horror show at Miami – again, he came away with a career-high for passing yards, and hit a handful of big plays for a change – but his mistakes were of the extra-crippling variety. On his first pick, facing third-and-goal from the Miami 11-yard line, Driskel danced around in the pocket awhile looking for a receiver, found just enough space to get off a pass before the rush closed in and proceeded to serve up a late, desperate throw over the middle that had no hope of reaching its intending target in the end zone. (That's a guess, because there were so many Hurricane defenders in the picture by the time the ball arrives it's a little uncertain who the intended target was supposed to be.) Rayshawn Jenkins came up with it, but if he hadn't another Cane would have. The running theme of red-zone failure was established with gusto.
Southern Miss. A week after gacking it up six times in a loss to Texas State, the Golden Eagles committed four more turnovers in a predictably lopsided, 56–13 debacle at Nebraska, including two interceptions returned for Cornhusker touchdowns in the first quarter. (Later, another interception would set up another Husker touchdown on the next play.) The 43-point margin is the widest yet in Southern Miss' ongoing, 14-game losing streak, still the longest in the nation with Arkansas and Boise State on deck.
Lane Kiffin. Seriously, man. You have Marqise Lee and scored seven points against a perennial Pac-12 doormat.