There’s a saying that humanity is merely the blink of an eye in the timeline of space and creation. I’ve worked this job long enough to know that the college football season has a similar feel to it. For months on end, we patiently wait for it to arrive. There’s National Signing Day, spring football and the dead season, all of which stretch for a majority of the calendar year. Then, for about three concentrated months, there’s the havoc of more than 1,500 games at the FBS level alone. If you’re lucky, maybe you catch a quarter of them.
And then, like that, it’s all over (until bowl season starts, anyway). So over the years, many of the individual moments tend to run together but there are always a selected handful that stand over a longer test of time. The 2018 season certainly had its share of those moments, even if on the aggregate it wasn’t as thrilling or unpredictable as college football has been known to be. There’s always something for someone, and with the season officially behind us, save for Army-Navy, it’s time to look back at the best and worst stories to come out of the regular season campaign.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts: You’re not going to find a better redemption story than Hurts’ after he came in for an injured Tua Tagovailoa in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. Down a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Hurts, who was benched himself against the Bulldogs in last season’s national championship, led Alabama on a pair of scoring drives to win 35-28 and secure the top seed in the College Football Playoff. Hurts’ performance inspired some lazy takes that more millennials should stick around instead of taking the so-called “easy way out” because … something-something snowflakes. However, Hurts believed his best chance to get better was at Alabama. His decision is completely independent of what another player can and/or should do when it comes to doing what is best for him. If that means staying, so be it. If it means transferring, then do it.
Quarterback inexperience: Experience at quarterback is overrated when it comes to winning a national championship. It’s the talent that matters, and this is true for each of the four signal-callers in this year’s College Football Playoff. Consider that two of the quarterbacks — Alabama’s Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — are first-time, full-year starters, and also the two frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy. The remaining two — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Notre Dame’s Ian Book — didn’t begin the year as the No. 1 guy, and Lawrence is a true freshman.
Purdue: Even before Louisville fired Bobby Petrino, it had its eyes on Purdue coach and former Cardinals quarterback Jeff Brohm. The temptation to return home is almost always difficult to resist, but in the end, Brohm opted to stay at Purdue to the tune of nearly. That’s a lot of coin to pay someone who’s 13-12 in two seasons, but records are relative. The Boilermakers haven’t enjoyed a .500 stretch like this since 2011-12, and haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since Joe Tiller was still coaching. It would take a massive tanking for Purdue to even think about moving on from Brohm, not to mention it would go completely against his career trajectory, but for six large a year, there’s now more pressure for him to at least take home a Big Ten West title. But hey, if Northwestern can play in Indianapolis, why can’t Purdue? And Brohm is the coach who can guide it there.
UAB: There’s a duality to UAB’s resurgence that makes the Blazers’ feel-good story a little bittersweet. In just two years’ time since reinstating football, UAB won the Conference USA championship. Coach Bill Clark deserves every applicable Coach of the Year honor, though he oddly didn’t win the award within his own conference (Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill did). On the other hand, how lowly is Conference USA if a team that literally didn’t exist two years ago can build a roster from scratch and win the whole thing? Make no mistake, the Blazers are a great story and Clark is a hell of a coach, but context is needed, too.
UCF: The Knights could win 50 games in a row — they never had and maybe never will have a realistic shot to compete in the playoff short of utter chaos erupting across the landscape. Of course, the playoff was never designed for access. It was designed to increase interest, viewership and money for the power conferences. Because the playoff is such a tired macro talking point, UCF going undefeated in two straight seasons is almost inexplicably overlooked; not only that, it’s somehow downplayed by critics as a byproduct of a weak schedule, as if 25 straight games could be won by your mailman. It’s a bummer that UCF won’t at least get in the same ring as the champ, but don’t let the playoff be everything in college football. The Knights haven’t lost in two calendar years, so let’s begin with appreciating that much.
The Kliff Kingsbury sweepstakes: USC coach Clay Helton is making wholesale changes after a 5-7 outing. One of them is bringing former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury in as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It’s a great, potentially job-saving hire. Kingsbury may not have gotten the job done at his alma mater, but he’s one of the hardest-working and smartest guys in the business, and a good dude to boot. He had a lot of options in front of him and chose this one. 2019 will be an interesting test for the Helton-Kingsbury experiment. Can Helton, who announced he was officially assuming play-calling duties with a month left in the season, hand the reigns back over to someone else and truly be more of a CEO? Kingsbury will want autonomy, and he’s earned the right to receive it.
The seven overtimes I will never forget: In the vein of memories standing up over time, Texas A&M’s 74-72 seven-overtime win over LSU will be one that is not soon forgotten. There’s not much else to add about it that hasn’t already been recapped, but I’ll give it this: it was the embodiment of what makes college football special. The unwillingness of Texas A&M to ever fold, the controversial calls that only fuels the narrative that each conference’s officials are somehow the worst, the wild touchdowns and two-point conversions … yes, LSU-TAMU had it all. Oh, and there will never be an overtime format that beats college football’s. Ever.
Overachievers: If you put money on win totals before the season, you’re likely quite happy with teams like Buffalo (10-3), Cincinnati (10-2), Georgia Southern (9-3), Kentucky (9-3), Syracuse (9-3) and Washington State (10-2). They were among college football’s biggest overachievers, surpassing their projected win totals by at least 3.5 wins. Cincinnati and Wazzu, specifically, went five wins and four wins over their projected total, respectively.
Michigan: Even though Michigan and Ohio State had identical records entering their end-of-season rivalry, the Wolverines looked like the better team throughout much of the year. Still, when it comes to The Game, everything from the previous 12 weeks doesn’t matter. Michigan was outplayed and outcoached by the Buckeyes, who still live rent-free in the apartment in Jim Harbaugh’s cranium. Harbaugh, by the way, is the first Michigan coach to start 0-4 against Ohio State and it’s far from a foregone conclusion that things will be easier.
West Virginia: This was it. This was West Virginia’s chance to make a run to a Big 12 championship. It had the best quarterback of a generation in Will Grier and no shortage of weapons around him. All the Mountaineers needed to do was win one of their final two games against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Instead, WVU was outscored 31-10 in the second half of a 45-41 loss to the Cowboys, and couldn’t quite keep up in a 59-56 loss to the Sooners. That’s seven points from a game in Arlington. One touchdown. This offense could score that in a minute. Look, 97 points in two tight games is on-brand for the Big 12, but to have nothing to show for it is going to sting for a while. Now the only thing left is for coach Dana Holgorsen — who is not an option to take another job — is to somehow parlay that into a new contract for more money … if he can.
The Heisman ballot: This is starting to feel like an annual push on my end, but I have a problem with the Heisman ballot. It’s not necessarily when voters can turn in their votes, rather how many slots are on the ballot that irks me. If voters want to submit their votes early, that’s their prerogative, but there should be more than three spots on the ballot itself. Give voters five names to write down which will allow more players — maybe even more than five — to make the trip to New York for the ceremony. In most years, the Heisman is a one or two-player race; the suddenly heightened drama this year between Murray and Tagovailoa is rare. Otherwise, the Heisman ceremony is a time to get to know the standout players in this sport. Wouldn’t you want to hear more about Memphis running back Darrell Henderson, who rushed for nearly nine yards a carry? Or get to know Washington State sensation Gardner Minshew? Or, hell, maybe throw in a defensive player now and again? The Heisman is about celebrating excellence, so tell the stories and highlight the achievements of more great players, not fewer.
Auburn: As it turns out, the only thing $49 million in new contract money bought coach Gus Malzahn was another set of problems. There have been rumors and reports for weeks now that Auburn boosters are split on what to do with Malzahn coming off a disappointing 7-5 effort. Some are apparently nervous about the idea of hiring Hugh Freeze as the offensive coordinator to replace Chip Lindsey given Freeze’s past with the NCAA. Others reportedly want Malzahn out entirely and are working to try to make that happen. Malzahn just wants to coach, and the end result is one big awkward situation.
Coaching retreads: There’s an argument to be had that Kansas and North Carolina made the most fascinating hires of this year’s coaching carousel by adding Les Miles and Mack Brown, respectively. Both were out of work coaches in their mid-60s just a couple of months ago, and now they’re back. In time, maybe these hires work out, but they lack imagination. Brown already coached at North Carolina from the late 1980s to the 1990s, and did a good job, but his final few years at Texas were appalling. Miles also failed to adapt towards the end of his tenure at LSU. Both coaches have a national championship on their resume, but that was a decade ago. There was a perfectly good Scott Satterfield sitting in the same state for North Carolina, and this was an opportunity for Kansas to try think outside the box.
Underachievers: Keeping with the win totals from earlier, Arkansas (2-10), Louisville (2-10) and Navy (3-9) were three of this year’s biggest underachievers. The Cardinals fell under their projected win total of seven by five games, and were among the worst Power Five programs while Navy fell four games below its projected win total of seven; however, the Midshipmen still have one more game against Army. Arkansas was in a complete rebuild under first-year coach Chad Morris, so the Hogs get a pass. Two other teams that definitely make this list are Auburn and Wisconsin, two teams that finished 7-5 despite having high preseason aspirations.
Divisions: The imbalance of divisions among the power conferences has been a problem for some time, and this year’s championship games had a couple of examples. The ACC and Big Ten Championship Games paired two teams in the playoff hunt against opponents who were a combined 15-9. The results were just as predictably lopsided: Clemson beat Pitt 42-10 while Ohio State pulled away from Northwestern 45-24. Getting rid of divisions seems like a long-awaited and much-needed answer, but there are few, if any, easy routes in creating schedules and tiebreakers to keep conference championship games alive. It can be done, mind you, but it’s going to take an overwhelming level of support from several conference big wigs that I simply don’t think is there.