The team that has looked the best through nine weeks of football is Ohio State. This is inherently a subjective statement, but there’s really no argument. The Buckeyes are 8-0 after their 44-31 win Saturday over Penn State, with all eight victories coming by double digits. The offense has topped 40 six times. The defense has held the opponent to 21 or fewer points seven times. It almost always looks easy.
But, as we’ve learned during the first eight years of the College Football Playoff, this is not a beauty contest, no matter how good Ryan Day might look in a Valentino evening gown. Even for the best of teams — the historically good ones — there’s some point in the season that’s a complete slog, a down-in-the-dirt fistfight that’s all about brute strength and sheer relentlessness.
Saturday may have been that slog for the Buckeyes, when C.J. Stroud wasn’t at his best and Penn State broke one big play after another, and the best-looking team in the sport got dragged down into the muck.
It could’ve been that, but when Ohio State kicked off its heels and got dirty, it somehow felt even more impressive.
It was a game in which Ohio State missed a field goal and flubbed a shot at another late in the first half.
It was a game in which Day’s team might’ve delivered a knockout punch early, but saw Penn State get off the mat and deliver a flurry of jabs that left the Buckeyes truly rattled for the first time this season.
It was a game in which Stroud looked out of sorts at times, in which Emeka Egbuka had some drops, in which one big run salvaged TreVeyon Henderson from a day of utter frustration.
And in the end, the score still looked sexy, an eighth consecutive double-digit win to open the season.
The other teams to do that in the playoff era: Alabama (from 2018 to 2020) and 2019 Ohio State. That’s it. That’s the whole list.
And, yet, while all four of those teams made the playoff, it’s notable that only those 2020 Crimson Tide won it all, thanks in part to the 2019 LSU Tigers, who might be the best team to ever suit up for a season. It’s a reminder that, no matter how impressive a team is through eight games, there are still seven more to go to win it all.
Still, if there were questions about this Ohio State team, Saturday went a long way to answering them.
We entered the season focused on Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but it’s Marvin Harrison Jr. who has blossomed into a superstar. He caught 10 balls for 185 yards against Penn State, and every time Ohio State had a got-to-have-it play, it looked to Harrison.
We entered the season with real questions about the defense after last year’s struggles, but Jim Knowles has worked wonders with this unit. And even while Penn State put up a 31 points — the most by a Buckeyes’ opponent this season — Ohio State had four takeaways and three sacks and Tommy Eichenberg was a wonder with 15 tackles and J.T. Tuimoloau served as a one-man wrecking crew, intercepting two passes, recording a strip sack and tipping a pass that was picked off, too.
It was apparent from the season’s opening notes that Ohio State was on a collision course with Michigan, eager to erase the misery of last year’s loss. But last season, Ohio State was all glitz and glamor and, underneath, had no real substance.
This is a different Buckeyes team, and Saturday proved they can roll around in the mud with anyone and come out still looking incredible.
The case for …
The first college football playoff rankings will be released Tuesday, which means it’s time to start expressing your anger at the committee now. So, to ensure Boo Corrigan has some sleepless nights between now and Tuesday, here’s your official guide to why each undefeated or one-loss Power 5 team deserves to be in the initial top four.
Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, and the Illini have arguably the most impressive defense in the country, holding seven of eight opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense. Also, Bret Bielema needs to give 60 days’ notice of cancellation if he wants his deposit back on the ice fishing lodge he has booked for the entire month of January.
The Horned Frogs have an impressive resume. They’re one of just two teams with four or more wins vs. teams ranked at game time this season. They’ve won four true road games. They’re just the third Power 5 team in the playoff era — along with 2018 Alabama and 2020 Alabama — to score 38 points or more in each of their first eight games of the season. They’re probably the only hope for a team from Texas ever making the playoff.
The Tigers were off in Week 9, but their resume stacks up with anyone. They’ve won four road games, four games against FPI top-40 teams, three games against ranked opponents, all while definitely, absolutely, no question about it, not worrying at all about their quarterback situation. Seriously, stop asking.
We have not actually watched any Georgia games this year. They’ve all been boring, even that kind of close one against Missouri when the Bulldogs spent most of the first three quarters trying to figure out what was going on with Chris Pine and Harry Styles before remembering they had to win the game still. But the important thing here is that if Georgia is not in the top four, Brock Bowers will be very angry at the committee, and the committee would not like Brock Bowers when he’s angry.
The committee will look kindly on Alabama’s good loss. Really, nothing weighs more heavily than that. But Nick Saban would actually prefer the Tide don’t get ranked in the top four so early. That’s rat poison, man. Besides, worst comes to worst, Saban can just cash in his “make seven playoffs, get the eighth for free” card.
A great Saturday of football is about top-25 matchups with playoff implications, yes, but what truly puts the action over the top are the palette-cleansers — the epically bad football that we all need to remind us of that we haven’t wasted a day on the couch eating wings and drinking beer, because we’ve proven to be more successful than Miami’s passing game.
And, without question, Week 9 offered us a true plethora of bad football.
Miami 14, Virginia 12 (4 OT)
The average root canal takes less than an hour, so technically speaking this was at least four times worse.
Miami, which hired Mario Cristobal to revive the glory days, went back a bit too far in the time machine and landed in an era when the forward pass was not a significant part of the game.
Now Virginia, which was among the most prolific offenses in the country a year ago, and its receivers react to passes like trick-or-treaters do candy corn (“Ah, yes, no thank you, we’ll just leave this on the ground”).
On the plus side, there were no turnovers in the Saturday game, so at least it was a crisply played disaster.
The game was tied 6-6 at the end of regulation. It was the third game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, in which neither team scored a touchdown — and the first not involving Iowa. (Brian Ferentz will be filing a suit for copyright infringement this week.)
In the end, the special teams won the day. Miami punter Lou Hedley had 308 punt yards — 36 more than Miami had offensive yards — and kicker Andres Borregales hit on all four of his field goal tries. Somewhere, Frank Beamer held out a framed photo of himself celebrating a 0-0 score, nodding knowingly, and popped a bottle of champagne.
UConn 13, Boston College 3
BC had five turnovers. The two teams were a combined six-of-28 on third down and had a combined 19 tackles for loss. And shanked punts? You betcha!
Danny Longman struggles with his first punt of the day that only travels 17 yards.
In the end, UConn earned its first win over a Power 5 opponent since 2016 (vs. Virginia, because of course). The Huskies have four wins now this season, which is particularly impressive considering they won just four of their previous 41.
For Boston College, it might be time to consider just putting up some police tape where the offensive line should be and hope the opposition respects the “do not cross” warnings. In any case, the loss was the first for BC against a team from New England since 1978.
Iowa 33, Northwestern 13
Iowa only punted once. So frustrating. Fans paid good money to see Tory Taylor out there. On the upside, Spencer Petras threw his third touchdown pass of the year. Without checking, we’re guessing he’s a mere two more away from the Iowa season record.
New Mexico State 23, UMass 13
The Aggies have won two in a row vs. FBS opponents for the first time since 2018. UMass losing by 10 or fewer also earns fans a free small coffee at all participating Amherst-area Dunkin’ Donuts locations.
The ACC would love to have Notre Dame join the league full time, but since 2014, when the Irish agreed to play five football games per year against the ACC in exchange for membership in all non-football sports, it was pretty clear the conference was strictly in the friend zone. Notre Dame is Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.” The ACC is Ducky — sweet, funny, and not nearly as rich as the Big Ten.
It’s one thing for Notre Dame to simply note that the ACC is nice and all, but it’s just not the Irish’s type.
It’s another thing to keep showing up for dates with the ACC and leaving the league alone, miserable and wandering a Food Lion at 1 a.m. looking for a gallon of ice cream and some cheap red wine.
The 41-24 victory Saturday over No. 16 Syracuse was the latest slap in the face in this doomed relationship, as the Irish won their 25th straight regular-season game against the ACC, dating back to 2017. In all, Notre Dame is 38-9 during this open relationship since 2014.
One-third of Notre Dame’s losses have come at the hands of Clemson, however, and the Tigers are on deck next week. Imagine if it’s the Irish that all but end the ACC’s playoff hopes for 2022 with a win.
But don’t think too much about that scenario because, surely, Notre Dame will send the league a text late one night this week with a simple “U up?” message, and against its better judgment, the ACC will reply. That’s how these relationships go, of course. And maybe if the ACC just picks up Notre Dame’s dry cleaning on the way home from work and doesn’t mind dog-sitting for a few days while Notre Dame gets away for a long weekend at USC later this year, maybe then the Irish will finally notice that, yes, they love the ACC, too.
Right up until Notre Dame hits them with an “It’s not you, ACC. It’s us. We just really cherish our independence.”
Under-the-radar play of the week
All fake field goals are wonderful and should be cherished by the masses. But some fakes attain truly epic status because they aren’t designed to simply fool the defense, but also to get the ball into the hands of the most elite athlete on the team: the kicker.
And so it was that Oklahoma ran a doozy Saturday, with holder Michael Turk flipping the ball to kicker Zach Schmit, who rumbled into the end zone like a young Jerome Bettis.
Oklahoma punter Michael Turk completes a touchdown pass to kicker Zach Schmit on Oklahoma’s beautiful fake field goal.
It was the first touchdown scored by a kicker this season and the first by a Power 5 player since 2019. The last Big 12 kicker to find the end zone was also a Sooner — Michael Hunnicutt, in 2013.
So, whatever else happens in Brent Venables’ first season at Oklahoma, he gave us this. And we should be forever grateful.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Holy Cross stayed undefeated — just barely — with a 53-52 OT win over Fordham on Saturday in a Patriot League showdown for the ages (which is to say the only Patriot League game we’ve paid attention to in a while).
Holy Cross trailed late, but Jalen Coker scored on a 15-yard TD pass with 1:24 to play to tie the game at 45. He finished the day with six catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns.
Fordham scored on its first play of OT to take a 52-45 lead, but Holy Cross fought back, scoring on a nine-yard pass to the pride of Swedesboro, New Jersey, Justin Shorter. The Crusaders opted to go for two, and Ayir Asante crossed the goal line for the 53-52 win.
Holy Cross is now one of four remaining undefeated FCS teams, alongside Princeton, Jackson State and Sacramento State.
Big bets and bad beats
Good teams win, as TCU did against West Virginia on Saturday. Championship-caliber teams win on the road, and Saturday was the Horned Frogs fourth such victory of the year. But the truly great teams, as we all know, cover. And TCU did that in magical fashion with a heave downfield on fourth-and-1 with 20 seconds to play, as Max Duggan hit Savion Williams for a 29-yard score, a 41-31 win and a cover. It may not matter to the playoff committee, but it matters to us.
Savion Williams hauls in a 29-yard touchdown to seal TCU’s win over West Virginia.