Midseason analysis: Buckeyes, Tide on title game paths
The first half of the college football season has been defined by coaching changes, downtrodden programs finding success and several traditional powers with lofty preseason expectations hitting the skids.
Scott Frost, Herm Edwards and Geoff Collins didn’t make it out of September with their jobs.
No. 14 Syracuse, No. 18 Illinois, No. 25 Tulane and Kansas are a combined 23-4.
Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Miami and Wisconsin, all ranked in the AP Top 25 presented by Regions Bank when the season started, are a combined 12-13.
A college football season doesn’t seem to officially start these days until Alabama loses and Tennessee took care of that on the seventh weekend of the 14-week march to College Football Playoff selection Sunday.
Over the next seven weeks, there will be more head coaches fired and at least a few hired. Expect more season-altering upsets, and for t he Heisman Trophy race to be decided on conference championship weekend because that’s typically the way it works these days.
Time to ponder what might be ahead.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM
No. 3 Tennessee
The Orange, Illini, Green Wave and Jayhawks have all been pleasant surprises coming off losing seasons. Illinois, Kansas and Tulane all reached the Top 25 this season for the first time in more than a decade. No. 8 TCU and No. 9 UCLA have gone from unranked to top 10.
Tennessee, however, has made the biggest and most difficult leap, going from the fringes of the Top 25 to legitimate national championship contender. We’ll see if coach Josh Heupel’s high-scoring Volunteers can remain in that conversation through consecutive games against No. 19 Kentucky and No. 1 Georgia in a couple weeks.
“From the inside, looking forward, we’ve got a lot of things that we have an opportunity to get a whole lot better at and the challenge for us is to become our best. We’re in the early stages of that,” Heupel told reporters Monday.
For now, no team has exceeded expectations more.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM
Lots of good candidates here when four preseason top-10 teams are already unranked with three losses, but Marcus Freeman’s first season as Notre Dame coach has been especially bad.
Even granting the Fighting Irish (3-3) were over-ranked at No. 5 in the preseason with a new coach and starting quarterback, losses to Marshall and Stanford at home have been among the season’s most confounding.
The Thundering Herd and Cardinal were both more than a two-touchdown underdog and neither has beaten another FBS teams outside of the Fighting Irish.
“The minute you start pointing the finger at the players, you’ll lose them. The minute you start blaming the coaches, you’ll lose them,” Freeman told reporters.
The one bit of good news is recruiting seems to still be going well for Freeman and Notre Dame.
COACH OF THE FIRST HALF
Coach awards tend to go to those leading teams that surpass expectations, which leaves those leading the consistently excellent programs often unrecognized. It’s weird.
Cases can be made for Georgia’s Kirby Smart for having the defending national champions positioned to win another one and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney for correcting course after a glitchy 2021 for the Tigers.
But in this case, the formula of exceeding expectations is worth honoring.
Leipold has worked a small miracle in his second season by making the Jayhawks (5-2) competitive and fun after 12 miserable seasons of never being better than 3-9.
Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee
As Johnny Manziel and Joe Burrow have shown, beating Alabama is a nice line to have on a Heisman resume.
Hooker, the Virginia Tech transfer, has been great so far, with the second-best passer rating (187.7) in the country to go with 18 touchdowns and just one interception.
A batch of quarterbacks have both the talent and opportunity to overtake Hooker, from Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud to the Los Angeles duo of Dorian Thompson-Robinson of UCLA and Caleb Williams of USC to reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young of Alabama.
But Hooker has been the star of the first half, and also leads the AP midseason All-America team.
MOST STUNNING UPSET
The Sun Belt has pulled some stunners this season, including Appalachian State’s win at Texas A&M, but no result has been more baffling than what the Blue Raiders did to the Hurricanes.
Middle Tennessee, currently 0-3 in Conference USA, ripped through Miami for touchdown passes of 69, 71 and 98 yards. The Blue Raiders averaged 8.3 yards per play against Miami and are still averaging only 4.98 on the season, second-to-last in C-USA.
Before the season, w e predicted a playoff of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oregon, with the Buckeyes winning it all and USC QB Caleb Williams taking the Heisman.
That’s all still in play to varying degrees (sorry, Oregon), but with a few adjustments:
Stroud lights up the Big Ten while Hooker stumbles just enough down the stretch in the Southeastern Conference for the Buckeyes’ quarterback to take the bronze statue in December.
NEW YEAR’S SIX
Rose Bowl — Michigan vs. Oregon.
Sugar Bowl — Tennessee vs. Texas.
Cotton Bowl — UCF vs. USC.
Orange Bowl — Wake Forest vs. Mississippi.
Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal) — No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Georgia.
Peach Bowl (CFP semifinal) — No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Alabama.
Championship game — Ohio State over Alabama.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
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