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College football takeaways: Could Cincinnati crash the College Football Playoff?

Pete Thamel
·15-min read

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell enjoys self-promotion about as much as he does pre-snap penalties. He’s an archetype of so many coach clichés — blinders on, one day at a time and the relentless pursuit of getting better every game.

But even Fickell, who gets an allergic reaction to hype, acknowledges that No. 7 Cincinnati should be considered in the thick of the conversation for the College Football Playoff. The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back blowouts of two teams expected to be among their stiffest competition in the AAC. And hence, at 5-0, they are playing as well as any team in America.

The Bearcats trounced No. 16 SMU in Dallas two weeks ago, 42-13, and blasted defending AAC champion Memphis, 49-10, on Saturday. (Memphis beat UC twice last season, which lingered heavily over the Bearcat players and staff this week.)

Fickell was a co-defensive coordinator on Ohio State’s 2014 national title team and has been around enough CFP contenders to know what they look like. When asked if Cincinnati looks like that, Fickell’s deep exhale revealed the difficult balance between his hesitancy to overhype and the need to promote his team.

“I think we have the ability to be able to do it,” Fickell said of playoff contention. “When you have a quarterback and you can play solid defense, I think you have a chance. For us in part, it’s not just coach speak, you can win every game. If you aren’t playing your best at the end of the season, [the committee] won’t give a damn you beat Memphis 49-10 or how badly you beat SMU. You have to be playing your best ball.”

Few are playing better than the Bearcats. Coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense is among the nation’s elite units. Cincinnati entered the day No. 5 in scoring defense, if you count teams that have played more than four games. Cincinnati returned its entire defensive line rotation this season, giving it a unit that could compete in most Power Five leagues. They are also stout in the secondary, with safety James Wiggins, corner Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and corner Arquon Bush all destined to play on Sundays. (Bush got banged up against Memphis).

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, front right, leads the team onto the field against Memphis before the start of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Cincinnati. (Photo by Gary Landers)
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, front right, leads the team onto the field against Memphis before the start of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Cincinnati. (Photo by Gary Landers)

Cincinnati held Memphis’ explosive offense to its worst output since 2015 and delivered the Tigers their worst overall loss since 2011. Junior quarterback Desmond Ridder continues his evolution, completing 21-of-26 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Jerome Ford ran for 116 yards on nine carries and scored two touchdowns. A defense-first program in Fickell’s early years is evolving and becoming more complete.

It was revealing late Saturday that Fickell noted he was watching Texas and Oklahoma State. The No. 6 Cowboys’ overtime loss means another inch up for No. 7 Cincinnati in the rankings. What does that mean the first time the College Football Playoff committee rankings come out on Nov. 24? It’s hard to say.

But at this point, with the Pac-12 not starting and Cincinnati having a better case than anyone in the Big 12, it’d be hard to keep them out of the conversation. Is Georgia or Notre Dame, the two teams ranked ahead of the Bearcats (along with Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State), really significantly better? We’ll learn more as weeks go on, but that’s a muddled argument right now.

The biggest drawback for Cincinnati will be its light schedule the rest of the season. They won’t likely play any ranked teams, as a trip to UCF on Nov. 21 looms as the biggest high-profile test.

That’s likely one of the ulterior motives of Fickell stressing they need to be peaking at the end of the year. He won’t say it, but style points will matter more for Cincinnati than teams from SEC, Big Ten and ACC.

Fickell said the anti-social nature of COVID-19 could lend his players to not getting big heads. He joked that he’s not sure what college kids do to celebrate now, but in his day he’d go to the bar with his teammates and find plenty of folks willing to buy celebratory beers.

In theory, he said, that shouldn’t be happening now with COVID-19 restrictions, but did note that it was Halloween night after a noon game. “It’s such a weird year,” he said. “You have to be on guard at all times.”

And in this weird year, it makes sense for Cincinnati to be in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation. They are on a trajectory that can’t be ignored, and the contenders continue to collapse around them.

Tua part two?

It’s hard to get too excited about Maryland football, but perhaps it’s given us a reason. The Terrapins had lost eight straight Big Ten games heading into Friday’s game with Minnesota and play Penn State and Ohio State in the upcoming weeks.

The Terrapins took advantage of a breakout performance by Taulia Tagovailoa — he accounted for five touchdowns — and outlasted Minnesota, 45-44, in overtime. Minnesota lost on a failed extra point, as its backup kicker, Brock Walker, missed after the Gophers scored in overtime. It was a fitting way for the game to end, as neither defense appeared equipped to muster a stop.

If you watched the ESPN broadcast, they used a sledgehammer subtly to remind you that Tagovailoa is the younger brother of former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa, who’ll be debuting as a starter for the Dolphins on Sunday. Taulia finished the game with 394 passing yards, and along the way used a prime-time window to help Maryland establish some national resonance.

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) scrambles for yardage as Minnesota linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin attempts a tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) scrambles for yardage as Minnesota linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin attempts a tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Tagovailoa transferred to Maryland from Alabama to play for Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who was Tua’s coordinator at Alabama. Taulia isn’t nearly the talent of Tua, but he’s good enough in coordinator Scottie Montgomery’s offense to give the Terps an adrenaline shot of relevance.

Before sending him to Canton, let’s remember Taulia threw three interceptions and completed just 14-of-25 for 94 yards against Northwestern in a 43-3 opening loss. And last we checked, that Wildcat defense isn’t the collegiate version of the Steel Curtain. So the truth of Taulia is likely somewhere in the middle.

Here’s what we do know: Minnesota’s defense is overmatched and will prevent it from contending in the Big Ten West this season. The Gophers lost seven starters from last season and the entire roster — especially the specialists — has been impacted by personnel losses tied to COVID-19 and contact tracing.

It was fun to see Taulia ball out on Friday night in a wacky, see-saw game. But let’s wait a pinch before drawing more grandiose conclusions. We know for sure Maryland’s defense is porous enough that he’ll need to put up big numbers and have plenty of possessions to do so. Let’s see how he does the next two weeks before comparing him to his brother in any way.

Wild start to Big Ten season

Two weeks into its shortened season, the Big Ten is a beautiful mess.

There are five winless teams, including Minnesota (0-2), Iowa (0-2) and Penn State (0-2). There are five undefeated teams, including Indiana (2-0), Purdue (2-0) and Northwestern (2-0).

The most intriguing part of the Big Ten this year will be who wins the West. While it’s too early to hand the East to Ohio State, it’s also hard to project who will threaten them after winning in State College.

Wisconsin would have been the favorite, but their recent COVID outbreaks promise to reverberate through the upcoming weeks. They are scheduled to play Purdue on Saturday, but that game is in limbo. Athletic director Barry Alvarez said the Badgers football program has 22 positive cases, including 10 staff members.

Wisconsin needs to play six games to be eligible for the league title game. Missing the Purdue game would put them at a maximum of six. They play Michigan on Nov. 14, and considering how COVID-19 has lingered in other programs they are likely to still be feeling the reverberations from this outbreak for that game (either players not practicing, in quarantine or new cases).

So who’ll win the West? Northwestern has two solid wins – at Iowa and a blowout of Maryland. Purdue appears to have found a quarterback in Aidan O’Connell, who threw for 371 yards on 29-for-35 passing this week while dispatching Illinois. That promises to be the most wide-open division, which makes 2020 like a lot of other years.

LSU, Ed Orgeron have seen better days

The Ed Orgeron national title joy ride is over. He’s got a flat tire and has spent much of the 2020 season stranded off the highway at 3 a.m. with no cellphone service.

LSU didn’t just lose its third game on Saturday, it did so again with such jarring ineptitude that holistic questions about Orgeron’s coaching staff changes hovered over the postgame.

Auburn trucked LSU, 48-11, as the Tigers showed no ability to stop Gus Malzahn’s offense in a season where everyone has figured out a way to slow that offense. It’s the third completely hopeless performance by LSU’s defense this season. History is not smiling kindly on the boat-racing from Mississippi State, and the 45 points Missouri scored don’t look particularly impressive in retrospect.

LSU will do some soul searching in the bye week, as Alabama looms on Nov. 14. Last year’s marquee matchup will feature an exponentially different tenor this time around, as LSU looms as an estimated 21-point home underdog. LSU’s season has been diminished by an exodus to the NFL draft and a spree of opt-outs. Some slippage is natural. But this type of a precipitous drop is something that Alabama and Clemson have managed to avoid. LSU has shown us that its program hasn't been built for that level of turnover.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, left, reacts after a play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, left, reacts after a play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)

LSU’s national title was a magical season, one of the most dominant in the history of the sport. But with Joe Burrow gone, Joe Brady gone and Dave Aranda gone, Orgeron has done little to establish an identity in the aftermath of their departure. There’s talent in the program and more coming, but this season reminds us why staff issues clouded Orgeron’s early tenure at LSU.

Bo Pelini has been a total bust as a defensive coordinator. But how much is a lack of talent and how much the inflexibility of Orgeron to mix up schemes? Pelini is the first candidate for a firing and buyout of more than $4.5 million for the two years left on his contract. (That would certainly contend for the most money paid to a coordinator to not work.)

LSU’s offense has had fewer issues. But the fickle health of Myles Brennan, who missed another start, hasn’t helped develop what they’ve become. Is longtime NFL assistant Scott Linehan the answer?

The joyride is over. LSU is essentially amid a rebuilding season. And it’s up to Orgeron to give some direction and vision to what rebuilt LSU will end up looking like.

Ohio State has itself a day

It’s hard to quibble with much of what Ohio State put forth in its generally comfortable 38-25 victory at Penn State on Saturday night.

The most impressive aspect may have been the dominance of both lines, as Ohio State’s offensive and defensive fronts mauled Penn State. “We did not win the line of scrimmage tonight,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Generally, Ohio State coach Ryan Day was pleased with how his team responded. Justin Fields threw for four more touchdowns and 318 yards. Twin talents Garrett Wilson (111 yards) and Chris Olave (120 yards) eclipsed the 100-yard barrier again. Tailback Master Teague rode the strong blocking for 110 yards and a touchdown.

“This is a big stage,” Day said. “This is our moment to show everyone where we’re at. I’m proud of the way our guys played.”

Nebraska’s fronts weren’t great barometers of Ohio State’s depth and talent in the trenches. Penn State provided a more formidable foe, and the Buckeyes pushed them around all night. Lineman Tommy Togiai led the way with three sacks. As a team, Ohio State had five sacks, seven TFLs and there doesn’t appear to be a team on their regular season schedule that’ll provide a mismatch in the trenches.

“It was a big step forward,” Day said. “To win this game on the road is a huge step for us. But there’s a lot to be done.”

Will Vanderbilt make a move?

Among major conferences that have been playing since September, only two winless teams remain.

They are Kansas and Vanderbilt, who’ve long been punching bags of the Power Five. With Les Miles in the second year of his rebuild and scholarship numbers dwindling, it’s unlikely Kansas moves on Miles.

Could Vanderbilt emerge as an unlikely aggressor in the coaching carousel? It will be the biggest question looming over the new tenure of athletic director Candice Lee.

Vanderbilt is 0-4 in Derek Mason’s seventh season, and has its best chance to salvage a victory against Mississippi State next week. Ole Miss drilled Vanderbilt, 54-21, on Saturday. This will be Mason’s seventh consecutive losing season, although he’s managed to lose a pair of bowl games after 6-6 years.

Vanderbilt has ambitions to be competitive in the SEC the same way that Stanford did in the Pac-12 more than a decade ago. There have been recent hires and movement behind the scenes to help the university’s athletic ambition to finally resemble the ambitions of the campus. Vanderbilt has never properly utilized its reach and name, and long accepted second-tier SEC status.

In order to change that, it would take investment. Lee appears capable and willing to chart Vanderbilt on that course. The question is whether the school can build and court donors with so little optimism from between the lines in football. Mason is beloved on campus and within the administrators. He’s also been dealing with a difficult hand from COVID-19, like so many other coaches.

But if this season ends up being hopeless, don’t be surprised if there’s a conversation about his job. With no other SEC jobs expected to open, could Vanderbilt take advantage of the soft market and perhaps hire a coach they normally couldn’t get?

Fresno State makes quite the introduction

Fresno State easily dispatched Colorado State, 38-17, on Thursday night, a game mostly notable nationally for the return of late-night, last-call football on Thursdays.

But the Gatorade shower delivered to first-year Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer meant much more than a token gesture for his first win. Few programs had a longer distance to travel to get ready for the season than Fresno State, which sent its players home in March and didn’t get them back on campus until late September.

The virus restrictions in California meant that essentially one month ago Fresno State was practicing for the first time. “We did have a lot of guys who didn’t know each other and had never met,” DeBoer told Yahoo Sports. “We did introductions on the field. We’re not allowed to meet in meeting rooms.”

As the college football weekends unfold, so does the sense of normalcy of brunch-to-midnight buffets of football. But what appears so clear in HD remains tenuous behind the scenes. And that’s why stories like San Jose opening with a win at Air Force and Fresno figuring out a way to get its first win resonate so much more than a score on a ticker.

Fresno practiced just 21 times, only four of which were full-contact practices and there was only one scrimmage. Last year, there were 25 practices, seven or eight of which were fully padded and two full scrimmages.

And while Fresno had plenty of Zoom time to learn the schemes, coaches will tell you there’s no better practice for playing football than actually playing football. That’s why first-year starter Jake Haener, a transfer from Washington who sat out last year, improved so much from the loss to Hawaii to the Fresno win five days later. He threw for three touchdowns and 311 yards against Colorado State.

And it left DeBoer with an appreciation for how much Fresno State had to do to get ready.

“Looking back on it, even in these last two days, it’s a big deal,” he said. “Just how we’re building the culture of our team and the urgency to be really good and how important it was for them to represent themselves.”

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