Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (reality checks sold separately in Boulder):
CONDOLENCES, YOUR TEAM IS A BUST
Six teams that began the season in the Top 25 and have vastly underdelivered on high expectations:
Auburn (11). Preseason AP ranking: No. 9. Current state: 4-3 overall, 1-3 in the SEC, sixth place in the SEC West. If one play can symbolize a season, it was this manifold disaster by the Tigers Saturday against Tennessee — a 30-yard loss turned defensive touchdown. Very poor blocking. Very poor decision-making by the quarterback. Very poor hustle by most Auburn players after the ball came loose. With a veteran quarterback many thought was the best in the SEC, Auburn is dead last in the league in yards per play (5.42). A run-heavy offense last year (63 percent) has dipped to 55 percent runs, in large part because the Tigers cannot sustain a consistent ground game. But QB Jarrett Stidham has played worse with more on his plate (efficiency rating down from 151 to 127). This has the makings of a 6-6 season.
Wisconsin (12). Preseason AP ranking: No. 4. Current state: 4-2, 2-1 in the Big Ten. The Dash was among the many sucked into the jet engine intake of rare Badger hype, believing this team would be different from the good-not-great editions of years past. If anything, this team isn’t as good as the previous ones that weren’t good enough to make the College Football Playoff. We chose to overlook the inexperience on defense, and the August suspension of receiver Quintez Cephus, instead fixating on a veteran offensive line and quarterback, and Heisman Trophy candidate running back Jonathan Taylor. The Wisconsin defense is surrendering 6.1 yards per play, on pace to be the most allowed since 1989 — the year before Barry Alvarez arrived and changed everything. In the Badgers’ two losses (BYU and a blowout against Michigan on Saturday), veteran quarterback Alex Hornibrook has a miserable efficiency rating of 97.2.
Miami (13). Preseason AP ranking: No. 8. Current state: 5-2, 2-1 in the ACC. The Dash resisted the Hurricanes hype preseason, believing that last year’s team was more opportunistic than good. This year Miami is again opportunistic (17 takeaways, tied for second-most nationally) but also giving the ball away frequently (12 turnovers, tied for 97th nationally). When freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry threw two interceptions in his first six passes Saturday at Virginia, Mark Richt went back to veteran Malik Rosier — and the result was only marginally better in a 16-13 upset loss. Miami is ordinary offensively, which makes the Turnover Chain all the more important — since the start of 2017, the ‘Canes are 13-1 when they win turnover margin, 2-4 when they are even or lose that stat.
Florida State (14). Preseason AP ranking: No. 19. Current state: 3-3, 1-3 in the ACC and fifth in the Atlantic Division. The Seminoles started the year horribly but were 20 minutes away from a breakthrough win against Miami on Oct. 6, and then it all collapsed. FSU blew a 20-point lead, committing two turnovers on three offensive snaps to open the door to a comeback by its hated rival. The previous week, Florida State had been lucky to beat self-destructing Louisville. And before that the Seminoles were completely outplayed by Virginia Tech and Syracuse. FSU is favored this week against Wake Forest but could well be an underdog in its remaining five games.
TCU (15). Preseason AP ranking: No. 16. Current state: 3-3, 1-2 in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs used to always proudly wear the underrated tag, but this year it’s the opposite. They’ve scored a total of just 47 points the last three games, bottoming out with 14 in a home loss to Texas Tech last week. TCU is dead last in the Big 12 in turnover margin (minus-9), giveaways (15) and interceptions thrown (nine) — signs of putting a lot on the shoulders of first-year starting quarterback Shawn Robinson. The speedy Horned Frogs also are surprisingly light on explosive plays from scrimmage, ranking last in the Big 12 by a wide margin in gains of 20 or more yards.
Washington (16). Preseason AP ranking: No. 7. Current state: 5-2, 3-1 in the Pac-12. Two losses in hostile atmospheres by a total of eight points is not a disaster — but more was expected of a veteran team with a four-year starting quarterback. A playoff window of opportunity has closed, and it may be a couple of years before it reopens. Injuries have not helped: star offensive tackle Trey Adams has missed the entire season; all-time leading rusher Myles Gaskin and his backup Salvon Ahmed were both limited by injuries during the loss to Oregon. Washington is on pace to average its fewest points per game since 2012.
SAVED BY THE BUYOUT?
Four coaches who are not performing well and leaking popularity with the fans, but could be saved by athletic directors willing to overpay them for no good reason.
Gus Malzahn (17), Auburn. His team’s travails are detailed above, all of it a bad look for a putative offensive genius. But the continuous love-hate cycle between Malzahn and Auburn currently gives all the advantage to the coach — he flirted with Arkansas after winning the SEC West last winter, and the result was a raise to $6.7 million a year. The current buyout is a whopping $32 million. Not even a school as completely lacking in football perspective as Auburn can swallow that kind of money with any justification. Which means it’s likely Malzahn will be back on The Plain for year seven in 2019 — whereupon he will probably exceed expectations and bring everyone back around to his side again. For a season.
Bobby Petrino (18), Louisville. This is easily the worst Louisville team since the three-year Steve Kragthorpe mistake — a 2-4 cluster bomb of bad offense, bad defense, bad coaching, bad recruiting and bad vibes. In year five of his second stint at Louisville, all of that is directly on Petrino. But former athletic director Tom Jurich overpaid everyone in his final years on the job, most flagrantly Petrino, who had done little to earn $4 million a year. His buyout is $14 million. Given what Louisville is facing financially — a pricey settlement with Jurich, a massive contract for new basketball coach Chris Mack, legal fees and forfeited revenue from NCAA investigations and more of that to come — the school could be stuck with Petrino for at least one more season.
Chris Ash (19), Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have sunk beneath Kansas as the worst Power Five program in America, and it’s not particularly close — not after the Jayhawks pulverized Rutgers 55-14 in September. If losing to Kansas by 41 wasn’t bad enough, Ash’s 1-6 team has followed it up with a 29-point loss to Buffalo, a 21-point loss to Illinois and a 27-point loss to Maryland. This was a ridiculously hard job when Ash took over in 2016, but the meager signs of progress in last year’s 4-8 season have disappeared completely. But Rutgers’ self-imposed sanctions due to NCAA violations in the Kyle Flood Era triggered a clause that extended Ash’s contract, and his buyout currently sits at $10.4 million. Given that, and the likely difficulty finding a quality replacement, Ash may well get a fourth year.
Lovie Smith (20), Illinois. If Florida State’s Willie Taggart is the least accomplished coach making $5 million a year, Smith is second. His NFL body of work got him that much, and he’s done nothing to earn it thus far in Champaign. Smith was handed a pile of junk when he took over and still has a frightfully young team, but it’s had to justify back-to-back shellackings from fellow Big Ten West reclamation project Purdue, which is in its second year under Jeff Brohm. Illinois is on a 14-game Big Ten losing streak against teams not named Rutgers, and none of those losses are by single digits. But Smith’s buyout is $12.6 million according to USA Today, which almost certainly will give him another chance to turn the corner with a roster laden with underclassmen.
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