Cleaning Up the Mess is here to make sense of what just happened at your weekend-long television party. Who put Goldfish in the blender? And why is the thermostat on 42?
This week: Jim Harbaugh was invited over to play Pictionary and still cannot stop yammering about how unfair it was that you skirted the rules even though he won. Charlie Strong stopped by, smiled, tipped his brand-new hat and said, “Good day” before dropping off Oklahoma, who had waaaaaaaayyyyyy too much to drink. Utah didn’t return anyone’s texts until later in the evening and then showed up out of nowhere only to sink into the couch and chuckle maniacally at the wall.
Jim Harbaugh was hired to rebuild Michigan from the rubble that was left behind by former coach Brady Hoke and former AD Dave Brandon. A rebuild, especially one for a football program that had fallen from national power to Big Ten also-ran, was going to take time. Year one would have its losses, its upsets and its moral victories. After a close loss to what was once deemed a Pac-12 underdog in Utah, the Wolverines seemed destined for, at the very least, one of the lower-tiered bowls. We were all resigned to just wait one more year, and even then, the jury would still be out on Michigan.
Five weeks after that loss in Salt Lake City, Michigan has looked every bit the football powerhouse it once was. That’s got to scare the ever-loving shit out of anyone who owns scarlet and gray in their wardrobe.
Michigan’s 38-0 victory over Northwestern, a team with the most dominant defense in the B1G West, is its third consecutive shut-out in 2015. The last time this happened for the Wolverines was 1980. A stat that recalls the twelfth year of Bo Schembechler, the man who forged the “Michigan Man” mystique – a prideful myth that seemed to hobble the program more than it bolstered it. After some rough times during Lloyd Carr’s end, an out-of-town experiment gone awry with Rich Rodriguez, and a back-to-mythos plan with the unintelligible Brady Hoke, putting another Michigan Man in to run the program held promise, but with hesitation. There’s no more reluctance now. The Wolverines are fantastic, and Harbaugh is giving more credence to the superstition of the “Michigan Man” during his prodigious run.
Northwestern’s rushing attack before its appearance in the Big House was a reliable source of yardage; the Wildcats averaged 248.8 yards through their first five games. Against Michigan, Northwestern’s running backs hardly made it out of their backfield with all of their limbs intact. Eight carriers only rushed for 38 yards against the Wolverines. The stat line even gets metaphorical: Northwestern’s team recorded one negative yard against the Wolverines, a sign that the squad, which had become one of the most astounding acts in the West, had hit a brick wall enforced by Michigan scrap metal.
The Wolverine offense, while not the most dazzling or innovative scheme, has flattened opposing defenses on their way into the end zone. This scorched Earth scene was no different against the Wildcats. Within the first five minutes of the game, Michigan scored two touchdowns. They then trotted their way to the end zone three more times as the defense consistently got the ball back as if it were a re-gifted bread maker.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team had a paltry 13 first downs compared to the Wolverines’ 21. Their 3rd Down Conversion rate was absolutely abysmal, only converting 2-of-13. The only time that the window was ever open for the Wildcats to escape Ann Arbor was when they got the ball back after Michigan’s opening touchdown drive. The failure to respond in kind resulted in Michigan shutting the window and drawing the curtains so that no one else could watch them dispose of the bodies with hydrofluoric acid in the Big House of Horrors.
Dominant, sixty-minute performances are the product of championship-caliber teams. Harbaugh’s third shutout against a Power Five squad (his second against a Big Ten team) is a clear indicator that the battle for the conference’s crown is no longer a three-legged race between Michigan State and Ohio State. Both teams have looked shoddy in their recent performances against lesser foes. The Spartans needed last-chance heroics and obliviousness to stave off B1G basement-dwellers Purdue and Rutgers. The Buckeyes leaned on Ezekiel Elliot against Indiana and only found a rhythm after another blooper reel against a Maryland program on the verge of cratering into Atlantis. Michigan is the only program in the B1G, and the country at large, that has pulled off some of the most resounding and convincing wins on its resume. With each passing week, that loss to Utah looks increasingly respectful and beneficial to its resume.
Next weekend, Michigan hosts Michigan State for the battle of state supremacy, a game that, up until the past three weeks, looked like it’d be won again by Mark Dantonio’s team. The Spartans are currently on a two-game win streak against the Wolverines, and their last loss to Michigan was in Brady Hoke’s second year as a head coach in 2012. Dantonio has done a great job of erasing the perception that the Spartans were inferior to their in-state rival in the Maize and Blue. Michigan State has been enjoying and reveling in more bowl wins than Michigan has since the termination of Rodriguez. Harbaugh’s Michigan looks ready to right this by turning the Spartans into little brother again with a pasting for the ages.
Blog Lord Rory Masterson texted me a very special reminder about rivalry games on Saturday: a coach could go winless in all of his other games, but if he beats RIVAL X, he’s safe for an indeterminate amount of time. Whole careers have been determined by doing the opposite of that axiom as well. The example closest to mind is John Cooper, who, while at Ohio State, was a fairly decent coach. From 1988-2000, he racked up a 111-43-1 record that was second to the Bucks’ legendary Nixon-for-President Advertisement, Woody Hayes. However, he had a 2-10-1 record in the only game that matters to many Buckeye fans. After a final 38-26 loss to the Wolverines in 2000, Cooper was sacked because of his inability to beat the only team that people cared about beating.
Butch Jones is someone whose main point of focus has been his lack of signature wins against rivals. Jones, in his third year at Tennessee, has recruited exceptionally while failing to show for it, with blown leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. Charlie Strong, on the other hand, has been lucky if he could beat anyone, let alone the Longhorns’ biggest rival. Strong’s job is a well-documented, highly publicized nightmare of trying to implement discipline in a work environment that is akin to a corporate office where everyone left work at 2 PM, regardless of whether or not any work was done. Both faced their rivals, each respective one favored by Vegas, pundits and everyone who has watched either Tennessee or Texas play.
Strong’s pre-game warm-up to the Red River Rivalry at the Texas State Fair was a barrage of reporters trying to shove a microphone into his face. They wanted to know about the Kris Boyd retweet of a Texas A&M player. Whether or not Mack Brown should be held accountable for leaving the cupboard bare in Austin. Or, how the toxic situation in the locker room was affecting the team dynamic. The one journalist who got the most focused, most prepared interview out of the mounting shit storm of bad news was Tom Rinaldi during a prepared interview for College Gameday.
Rinaldi asked Strong when he thought things would improve for the program. The Texas head coach kinda smirked and said, “I hope sooner rather than later.” Rinaldi pressed for a specific date, also setting up somewhat of a softball. Strong inched closer to the camera and, with gusto, remarked, “SOONER rather than later.”
The bold subtweet turned into a inexplicable game where Texas, despite entering the game as steep underdogs, came out on top 24-17 against Big 12 favorite Oklahoma. The cracks in the Sooner run defense last week against West Virginia turned into huge foundational issues as the Longhorns racking up a total of 313 rushing yards. Oklahoma’s offensive answer in QB Baker Mayfield offered no game changing solution despite the fact that Mayfield completed 20-of-28 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown. It seemed like the Sooners completely forgot how to use RB Samaje Perine under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The result was an unbalanced offense that got stopped on the ground by what was once one of the worst units against the run: the Texas defense.
Texas’ victory was met with unrestrained elation by everyone involved with Texas. From Kevin Durant to the Governor’s office, the Longhorn faithful celebrated this win as if they were Washington State getting the win over Oregon. Longhorns don’t know tortured fandom in the slightest, but when you’ve been used to national relevance for decades, a 1-4 start is like being the whiny Dan Aykroyd character in Trading Places. It feels good to actually root for Texas in these situations, though, when Strong took on one of the most complex rebuilds in college football. I think this may be the first time since the 2006 Rose Bowl that America is happy that Texas won.
Jones’ situation, while not as excruciating as the media shellacking that Strong has received, is one where results were needed fast. Losing after leading became a Tennessee trademark this season after three straight games were dropped from the Volunteers’ inability to sit on any lead for the remainder of the game. If those games were won, we would’ve seen Tennessee as the favorite to win the SEC East rather than as an underdog at home against Georgia.
Fates were reversed for Tennessee and Georgia when the Bulldogs led in Neyland Stadium 24-3, even with RB Nick Chubb unfortunately out with a knee injury after the first snap from scrimmage. UGA was rolling towards a SEC East game of favorites in Jacksonville. Instead, the Volunteers came bounding back within the final minutes of the second quarter to catch up. The second half was all Tennessee; the Volunteers outscored Georgia 21-7 in the final quarters of the game.
With the game at 38-31, Georgia QB Greyson Lambert made one final drive towards the end zone in the final seconds that was stopped on one broken play towards the end zone. Tennessee finally won its first game since the short-lived Lane Kiffin era against Georgia, snapping the five year losing streak. The result was a state of euphoria for Vols fans, whose primal screams of joy were deafening by the game’s end. It was one of the most jubilant scenes from Knoxville under Jones’ regime.
Do both of these victories mean that Jones and Strong are safe? They were safe, even if they lost and went on to beat up on the lower tier teams. But these victories have given both coaches some nice cushion under seats that were being lit by raging blow torches. The lingering question is whether or not these games were outliers or indicative of a slow march towards that much coveted region of progress.
Staying up all night to watch the late Pac-12 slot does things to you. You start to wonder where you are, how you got here and what it all means. By 1 a.m., I was starting to grow bewildered at how I ended up in Salt Lake City, staring at the yawn of time which separated Utah fans from their cheer squad and football team; both dressed to reflect a team from Pleasantville. Like Pleasantville, there was an underlying darkness to the ho-hum niceties of this Rocky Mountain team which suggested something more sinister. That’s because it represents a beast that can force FIVE INTERCEPTIONS and still leave you with a last-second drive they know to be futile. You will never leave this place; this place is your home. This home is the beast’s stomach because you’ve been fed to it. Enjoy your stay.
This game had Rod Serling’s name all over it. It’s out-of-nowhere appearance in the prologue: the battle of two Pac-12 unbeatens, Cal and Utah. You could almost hear Serling say, “You unlock this door with the key of imagination” before the nightmare fuel haunts you to bed. This is Pac-12 After Dark.
This game never felt out of reach to win for Utah even though Cal made a final charge down the field. Pretty surprising when you see that Jared Goff, once again, threw FIVE INTERCEPTIONS AND STILL ONLY LOST BY SIX POINTS. The end result was 30-24 with Utah RB Devontae Booker eluding Cal defenders for 222 yards and two touchdowns. The Utes are now the only undefeated Pac-12 team remaining in conference play, a far cry from their original preseason projection as the fifth-best team in the South division.
So far, the Utes have proven themselves as one of America’s elite by taming the radioactive, giant Wolverine, delivering the death blow to Oregon and surviving against one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Goff. Their road to the Playoff gets a little trickier as they head towards division play against unquantifiable Arizona State next week. Another solid win by Utah might just lay any remaining doubts about the legitimacy of this team to win. But, strange happenings take place past the 10 PM hour and who knows if Utah’s insatiable mountain beast will still be hungry for another week of sacrificial lamb. You’ll just have to find out next week when we peek into this otherworldly place of stiff smiles and robotic cheerfulness.
OTHER LEFTOVER PARTY FAVORS
- USC’s Steve Sarkisian lost to his former team, Washington, on Thursday night in a 17-12 sleeper. The usually humming Trojan offense seemed to fall asleep to their own noise against the Huskies and were rendered wholly ineffective. It’s only the Trojans’ second loss of the season, but in a place like Los Angeles, it’s blown to widescreen proportions with THX surround sound. With Sarkisian’s extracurricular activities coming to light, he needs to win out or face the same Hollywood treatment that Kiffin received after a loss to Arizona State. (Editor’s Note: Or get canned for failing to meet Teflon Pat Haden’s “USC standards,” i.e., showing up blasted at official team activities).
- Iowa is now 6-0, and the best team in the B1G West after a 29-20 win over a now feisty Illinois team. Just like everyone predicted! Good on you, Hawkeyes!
- The 49-28 box score doesn’t suggest it, but Ohio State needed another monster effort out of RB Ezekiel Elliot to pull them out of reach of Maryland’s grasp. The good news is that Cardale Jones looked the best he’s been all season after a slow start in the early going. The bad news is that the defense could barely hold a shambolic Terrapin offense back in through three quarters. If it’s not one thing, it’s another with your preseason unanimous number one.
- LSU’s Leonard Fournette looks every bit the part of a Heisman frontrunner, with 158 yards and a touchdown game against South Carolina. With his 158 yard, Fournette became the tenth player in FBS history to run for 1,000+ yards in the first five games of the season. Fournette is so nice he’s even auctioning off the jersey of the momentous occasion to help out victims of the floods in South Carolina (Editor’s Note: LOLZ NCAA YOU CRAZY BOO)
- Clemson completely lit Georgia Tech on fire in a 43-24 stomp. After all the talk of “Clemsoning”, Dabo Swinney had enough in the post game press conference. Normally, I’d laugh at this kind of passion from college football’s excitable ten-year-old, but he has a point. The Tigers haven’t lost to an unranked team since 2011, Swinney’s first year as a head coach. That’s 33 games of beating who they were supposed to beat. I know I said last week that I didn’t really trust the Tigers to get past Florida State without two losses, but most of that was colored by the years before Swinney’s tenure. This season, with excellent wins against a GREAT Notre Dame team and a resounding victory over Georgia Tech, they are the ACC favorites. Clemson deserves its due until otherwise noted.
- Florida’s huge win over Ole Miss was supposed to result in a hangover against Missouri. Technically, there was one. If you count an 18-point victory on the road as a hangover then you’re probably a big fan of George Jones. The Gators, much like Jones, are ornery and fired up especially in the face of media that gave them an earlier expiration date than necessary. Now, at the top of the pack in the SEC East, Florida doesn’t have to wait a year or two to wait until relevancy.
- Michigan State needed a short circuit by Rutgers in Piscataway to escape 31-24. As the final seconds ticked away, QB Chris Laviano spiked the ball on fourth down to hand the ball back over to the Spartans to end the game. Sparty seems to have some sort of Jedi Mind trick up their sleeve for bottom dwelling teams who are near an upset. Either that or these teams are legitimately scared of the ramifications of actually beating Mark Dantonio and being anywhere near that festering volcano.
- Florida State extended its win streak over the Miami Hurricanes to six after a down-to-the-wire 29-24 match in Tallahassee. Al Golden threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Seminoles. The Seminoles returned the favor, with RB Dalvin Cook rushing for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Miami’s loss here means that Golden’s incarnation of an ibis is cooked and ready to be served. It doesn’t really help that the program’s most vocal cheerleader and influencer has been steering local talent to the likes of FSU and Florida. Things in South Beach have gone from bad to worse, and it doesn’t look like it will get much better anytime soon.
- TCU managed to get out of Manhattan, Kansas without a loss despite trailing Kansas State for three quarters. Bill Snyder’s wizardry managed to come up short after Trevone Boykin floated a pass over to Big 12 wunderkind Josh Doctson for a 55-yard completion in the final minute to put the game out of reach at 52-45. The Horned Frogs live to fight another day in a Big 12 that’s seeing more turnover below their feet.
- Oklahoma State is still eeking out of close games even though its best efforts to drop one are on full display. The Cowboys fled Morgantown after winning 33-26 in overtime to retain an undefeated record. They now join Baylor and TCU as the only undefeated teams within the Big 12 conference.