Rivalry Week shows the best of college football once again

The great Chuck Klosterman once wrote that every man (or woman) must have a nemesis. A rival is essential to our very being. It is not there to torment us, but rather to drive us, to act as a measuring stick for our own success. Without a nemesis, we are but ships afloat on a vast ocean, going where the tide takes us. A rival makes things matter.

And so it is that an elusive axe being returned to Minnesota can create joy in that state that wouldn’t be topped by Kirby Puckett’s ghost showing up at karaoke to sing a cover of “Purple Rain.”

It’s why fans in Ann Arbor are burning their khakis after yet another lost visit to ColuXbus, Ohio, and Urban Meyer will make sure that every congratulatory text he got after the Buckeyes’ win will never be deleted from his phone.

Rivalries require Dan Mullen to interrupt a postgame interview to break up a fight at midfield and Egg Bowl officials to flag literally every player on both teams on the same play. They allow the worst Virginia Tech team in decades to still be sipping champagne from a battered cup 24 hours after a stunning win. It’s why Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate is actually so much more enjoyable for fans in Athens when the hate is replaced by a halftime trip to the bar because the win is already secured. It’s why a rivalry game called The Holy War can feature thousands of otherwise devout locals sounding possessed by something a little unholy.

The rest of the country might have been ready to leave USC on an airport tarmac, but the Trojans weren’t rolling over for Notre Dame. So even without a playoff berth on the line, a rival still stood its ground.

There’s a reason we play these games the weekend after Thanksgiving. To play them beforehand would result in far too many boisterous uncles with black eyes and overeager grandkids getting mashed potatoes stuffed down their pants.

Late in regulation, as North Carolina and NC State were tied, the cameras panned into the crowd to show a lovely couple, the man decked out in Carolina blue and the woman in a red Wolfpack cap. They seemed content, the rare beneficiaries of a tie score. They’re likely divorced now.

Dabo Swinney told stories this week about being harassed by South Carolina fans at his kids’ Little League games. Not by the parents. By the kids.

“They like to yell ‘Roll Tide,'” he said.

That’s a vicious burn from a 12-year-old.

And rivalries don’t even need to make sense. There doesn’t need to be any real grievances for the hatred to bubble up. We may or may not have an undying animosity toward a guy on Facebook we haven’t seen in 25 years, but how’s that any different from Herm Edwards ripping out Kevin Sumlin’s heart Saturday after neither had any ties to the state of Arizona before being hired?

It’s cliche to say you can throw the records out the window in a rivalry game, because the better teams usually do win. Usually, but not always. And that’s what makes it even more fun on a day like Saturday, when we measure ourselves against a rival who was supposed to be our superior and we find out we’re a little better than we thought — when Kentucky, losers of six of the past seven Governor’s Cups, can put the final dagger through a horrendous season at Louisville, or when Vanderbilt, which had won just once between 1983 and 2011, can firmly claim it’s Big Brother in the state of Tennessee after thumping the Volunteers for the fifth time in the past seven years.

Or how about this: Wisconsin’s Twitter feed noted before Saturday’s game that the Golden Gophers hadn’t won Paul Bunyan’s Axe since Twitter was invented.

And at 7:20 p.m. Saturday, Minnesota replied: “Tweet, tweet.”

Yes, we need our rivals. They define us, for better and for worse. We should really thank them for that. Thank them, and then proceed to send them a text reminding them how much they stink for the next 365 days.

Ranking the rivalries

Taking a look at Rivalry Weekend’s best matchups and finding their non-football counterparts …

Minnesota over Wisconsin is Future vs. Drake: Seems like there should be a clear favorite here, but Minnesota does a nice job punching above its weight class.

Virginia Tech over Virginia is Wawa vs. Sheetz: It’s only fitting that the one state where the two convenience stores overlap is Virginia. And we’re not saying Sheetz is bad. We’re just saying there’s no real competition here.

Alabama over Auburn is Coke vs. Pepsi: The Pepsi Challenge is like the Kick Six — keeps the rivalry interesting, but there’s a clear front-runner here.

Washington over Washington State is Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 News Team vs. Wes Mantooth and the Evening News Team: Sure, Mike Leach didn’t share his In-N-Out burgers with Chris Peterson, but we’d like to think he’d rescue Peterson from a bear pit.

Vanderbilt over Tennessee is Cheers vs. Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern: Gary was so smug for so long, and now the ragtag bunch of lovable losers is getting its revenge.

Purdue over Indiana is Hansel vs. Zoolander: Jeff Brohm. So hot right now.

Clemson over South Carolina is Maverick vs. Iceman: The Tigers played like a real loose cannon, and Christian Wilkins’ Heisman pose was the rough equivalent of buzzing the tower.

Georgia over Georgia Tech is Jerry vs. Newman: Georgia is having more fun, but Paul Johnson does make for a good pesky neighbor out to undermine you at every turn.

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Dwayne Haskins throws five touchdown passes as Ohio State puts up 62 points vs. Michigan, the most ever against a Jim Harbaugh-coached team.

Heisman five

Friday night’s performance seemed to finally push Kyler Murray into position to legitimately steal the Heisman from Tua Tagovailoa. He secured Oklahoma’s place in the Big 12 title game with 364 passing yards, 114 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. And his case was actually pretty strong.

Murray has more total yards, touchdowns and explosive plays than Tagovailoa. Even looking at some of the per-touch stats, he’s neck-and-neck with the Alabama QB. But the biggest argument in Murray’s favor is that his plays have been far more meaningful. For one, Oklahoma’s defense is a hot mess, so the Sooners have desperately needed Murray’s heroics on offense. But beyond that, Tagovailoa simply hasn’t had to do much of anything in close games. He has thrown just two passes in the fourth quarter this year; he’s thrown just nine second-half passes all year when the score was within two touchdowns. Murray has two more touchdowns in the second half of close games than Tagovailoa has touches.

And yes, we’ve heard the talk about the Big 12 defenses, but entering Saturday’s games, the numbers actually suggest it wasn’t that significant a difference. According to ESPN’s defensive efficiency metric, Tagovailoa’s opponents’ average rank is 64th. Murray’s are 61st.

So there’s the case. Murray belongs in the conversation and could quite likely be described as the favorite.

And then Tagovailoa took the field against Auburn and blew that whole conversation out the water, throwing for 324 yards, accounting for six touchdowns and once again not turning the ball over.

In any other year, yeah, Murray is a runaway winner. But Tagovailoa has utterly changed this Alabama offense, and he has made it all look so easy.

1. Tagovailoa, Alabama: Alabama has gained 498 yards of offense in 11 of 12 games this season. The only other team to do that in the past decade was Dino Babers’ 2015 team at Bowling Green.

2. Murray, Oklahoma: He’s college football’s MVP. No one means more to his team. But his numbers are just being overshadowed by Tagovailoa’s flawless performance by a hair.

3. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State: He’s the poor man’s Murray — not quite as flashy and with a defense not quite as bad, but Haskins has been as dominant a passer as there is in college football this season, and he has had surprisingly little help.

4. Will Grier, West Virginia: Tough when a guy throws for 539 yards and four touchdowns and he both loses the game and falls back a tick in the Heisman race.

5. Darrell Henderson, Memphis: Yeah, he’s probably not on a ton of ballots, but he should be. Henderson wrapped the regular season by leading Memphis to the American Athletic Conference championship game with 174 yards and two touchdowns against Houston. Henderson is second nationally in rushing (1,699), second in rushing touchdowns (19) and has the best yards per carry in the nation (8.58).

Book it

After a rough start against USC, Ian Book finished with another solid start, throwing for 352 yards and two touchdowns. Book has started only eight games this season, and he has thrown for at least 260 yards and multiple TDs in every one. The only guys with more this year are Washington State’s Gardner Minshew, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — all potential Heisman finalists. And those eight games with 260/2 for Book match the entire careers of Everett Golson and DeShone Kizer at Notre Dame, and they’re the most in a season by an Irish QB since Jimmy Clausen had nine in 2009.

Going up

No team made a bigger move up the standings in 2018 than Cincinnati, which improved from 4-8 last year to 10-2 this season. That’s likely to land Luke Fickell at the top of some athletic directors’ wish lists.

But the Bearcats weren’t alone in taking a big step forward in 2018. Matt Rhule has Baylor bowl-eligible after going 1-11 last season. Dino Babers helped Syracuse to a five-win improvement, while Dan Mullen has Florida at 9-3 after a woeful 4-7 campaign last year.

Ready for 2019

We started the season talking about the struggles of first-year coaches, and we ended it there, too. Arkansas, Arizona, Florida State, UCLA, Nebraska, Tennessee and Oregon State all lost their finale, and none will go to a bowl game. But as the year closes out, it’s not all bad news. Here’s how we see these programs leading into Year 2 for their coaches, ranked by enthusiasm.

1. Nebraska: The Huskers spent the start of the season finding ways to lose, but the latter half of the year was one competitive game after another, including nearly upending Ohio State and Iowa down the stretch. Nebraska fans wish the 2019 season started tomorrow.

2. UCLA: Chip Kelly upset rival USC last week and nearly pulled off a stunner vs. Stanford on Saturday. The 3-9 finish overshadows the fact that the offense finally started to click in the second half, as the Bruins topped 30 in four of their past seven.

3. Tennessee: The loss to Vandy was demoralizing, but Jeremy Pruitt inherited a terrible team and improved by one win and beat both Auburn and Kentucky, so there was progress. Recruiting is Pruitt’s strong suit, and the roster in 2019 is going to look a lot better.

4. Florida State: There’s a contingent of the fan base eager to fire Willie Taggart already. Given that he already has as many losses to rivals Miami and Florida as Jimbo Fisher had during his entire tenure, the anger is legitimate. But Taggart inherited a roster far worse off than people understood, and the offense did seem to progress as the year went on. Until there’s a talent infusion on the O-line, things aren’t going to get a lot better, but the fact that Taggart hasn’t let this thing go completely off the rails is a good start.

5. Arizona: Kevin Sumlin’s team looked utterly lost in September, and a banged-up Khalil Tate didn’t help. But four of Arizona’s losses were by five points or fewer, including two one-point defeats. That’s usually a good sign that the tide will turn the next season.

6. Arkansas: It’s not just that the Razorbacks were bad in Chad Morris’ first year. That was expected. It’s that they were really bad, with five losses by 20 points or more. And with just six points in its final two games, Arkansas’ offense didn’t exactly get the bump you’d expect from Morris. But that said, Morris’ first year at SMU was awful, too, and progress came steadily after that.

7. Oregon State: This is going to be a long road. But hey, that comeback against Colorado was fun, right?

Let’s play two

We’ll see a rematch of the Red River Showdown in the Big 12 title game, as Texas and Oklahoma face off for a second time this year, and the Conference USA title game will be a rematch of the Week 13 game between Middle Tennessee and UAB. So, it’s cool to play twice now? Yeah, well, Liberty and New Mexico State did it first. The two Independents played for the second time this season Saturday, with Liberty winning 28-21, avenging an Oct. 6 loss. So, does that mean we need a rubber match?

In memoriam

As the regular season comes to a close, let’s take a minute to remember the 70 seconds of action in which Alabama trailed. Ole Miss’ Jordan Ta’amu connected with D.K. Metcalf for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of their game on Sept. 15, and for the next horrific 70 seconds and three plays, the Crimson Tide were losing a football game. We assume film study for Alabama the rest of the season was just that one play on a loop, as Nick Saban fights the rat poison. Still, it was an unnerving 70 seconds, and we’re all grateful Alabama was able to recover.

Best of the B1G

Northwestern meandered its way to a win over Illinois on Saturday, finishing 8-1 in Big Ten play ahead of its conference-title-game matchup against Ohio State. Add that to the seven straight wins the Wildcats had to end last year’s Big Ten slate, and Pat Fitzgerald’s crew is now 15-1 in its past 16 conference games. How impressive is that? The record the best in the Big Ten — ahead of Ohio State (14-2), Michigan (12-4) and Wisconsin (12-5) in that span. But it’s also the same record as Oklahoma has in the Big 12 (15-1), better than Alabama in SEC play (12-1) and Clemson in ACC play (11-1). In fact, the only team that has been better in conference over that span is UCF, which is 14-0 in the American.

Still winning, still ranked

No. 20 Syracuse toppled Boston College on Saturday, virtually ensuring the Orange will end the season with a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 2001. No. 25 Iowa State staged a ferocious comeback against Kansas State, too, and a now a bowl win would give the Cyclones their first end-of-season Top 25 ranking since 2000.

Teams on the hook the longest if Syracuse and Iowa State end their streaks? Cal and Wake Forest haven’t been ranked at the end of the season since 2006. Virginia hasn’t been since 2004. Purdue and Minnesota last ended the year ranked in 2003. But the longest remains Indiana, which hasn’t finished a season as a Top 25 team since 1988.

Not enough bowls

Florida State won’t be in a bowl this year, ending the unofficial longest active streak in the country at 36 after losing to Florida and mercifully putting to bed the long-running feud about vacated bowl games. It also marks the first time since 1976 that Florida State finished with a losing record. To put that into perspective, that’s the same year Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. We’ve seen eight “Rocky” movies, seven presidents and several Kansas wins since then. It’s been a while.

But it’s just as well for the rest of college football that the Seminoles lost because, despite all the clutching of pearls at the sheer number of bowl games (we can’t wait to meet you in 2020, Myrtle Beach Bowl!), we’ve actually got more bowl-eligible teams than bowl slots.

This week, Baylor, Purdue, Tulane, Wake Forest, Wyoming, Southern Miss, Minnesota, TCU, Vanderbilt and Miami (Ohio) all got win No. 6, which brings us beyond the 78 available slots. Moreover, Virginia Tech could add its name to the roll next week.

Too many bowls? No way. There’s not enough. So, get to work on planning your own bowls, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Dover, Delaware; and Big Arm, Montana (that’ll be a Big 12 tie-in).

Big moments in Week 13

Week 13 offered us some good nominations for big end-of-the-regular-season awards. No, not any that will be given away with a trophy, but some important ones nevertheless. For example …

Transitive property of the year award: Rice entered Week 13 with a 1-11 record, the lone victory against an FCS foe. But on Saturday, Rice upended Old Dominion, setting up our favorite “transitive property of college football” scenario for the season. Rice beat ODU. ODU beat Virginia Tech. The Hokies beat Virginia. Virginia beat Duke. Duke beat Northwestern. Northwestern beat Purdue. Purdue beat Ohio State. So, of course, the playoff committee must decide: Rice or Oklahoma for the No. 4 spot.

Worst game of the year award: The less said about Michigan State-Rutgers the better. The matchup of the two teams, which combined for fewer yards than Will Grier threw for against Oklahoma, could optimistically be called a defensive battle. Insofar as the offense stunk and the special teams — well, this really summed things up.

Best actor award: Not only did Feleipe Franks lead Florida to a 9-3 season, but he’s the leader in the clubhouse for the season’s finest thespian after his flop against Florida State. He might not blossom into a Heisman winner, but the kid’s got a future in the Premier League.

Fan of the year award: We really should give a trophy out for this one, but there’s no question who deserves to be holding it. Tyler Trent has been an inspiration to Purdue all season, and he has become one of the most recognizable faces in the sport because of his endless passion and, of course, unquestionable bravery and strength. Seeing him honored as an honorary captain before Purdue became bowl-eligible against Indiana was perfect.

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NC State RB Reggie Gallaspy dives into the end zone for an OT victory vs. North Carolina, then a brawl erupts as players start punching each other.

Most inexplicable perspective on something obvious to everyone else: We could shorten this to be simply called the Larry Fedora Trophy. Fedora was the leader in the clubhouse for the honor before the season even started thanks to his explanation of how concussion protocols in college football would be the downfall of America, but he might have topped himself Saturday, explaining that the fight in the end zone after NC State toppled the Heels in overtime wasn’t actually a fight. “There was no fight,” Fedora said. “It was their team celebrating in our end zone and our team celebrating.” Fedora is fixing America one celebration after a 2-10 season at a time.

Airing of grievances

Wisconsin opened the season as the No. 4 team in the country, with a manageable schedule, a dominant offensive line, a Heisman candidate tailback and a ton of hype.

On Saturday, the Badgers got blown out by Minnesota, finishing the regular season at 7-5. And honestly, it could’ve been worse.

The Badgers have losses to BYU, Minnesota and Northwestern this season — all teams that lost at least four games, narrowly escaped Purdue and managed to look pretty meh against the likes of New Mexico and Nebraska, too. For the year, the Badgers were 3-9 against the spread — a good measure of the difference between expectation and result.

Add it all up, and Wisconsin is our season winner as the biggest underachiever. Of course, there was competition.

Miami: The Canes lost to Wisconsin in last year’s Orange Bowl, which should suggest that game came with some sort of curse. Perhaps a voodoo spell was put on the turnover chain. In any case, the woeful Canes managed to avoid the top (or bottom) spot here by avenging last year’s loss to Pitt in Week 13.

Auburn: The Tigers could’ve easily lost to Washington in the opener and to Texas A&M a few weeks back, which would’ve left them without a bowl bid. So at least there’s some silver lining. Still, the team that reached as high as No. 7 in the AP poll will finish 7-5 and, likely, unranked. It would be the fourth time since 2003 that Auburn spent time in the top 10 and finished the year outside the Top 25.

Michigan State: Preseason No. 11, the Spartans ended the regular season 7-5 with a narrow escape against Rutgers. The offense failed to top 21 points in six of 12 games, including scoring a grand total of 26 over their past three.

Florida Atlantic: At least we’ve still got Lane Kiffin’s Twitter feed, but what if he wasn’t actually an offensive genius after all? The team that had so much Group of 5 hype entering the season just finished it with a loss to Charlotte — which had just fired its coach — to miss out on a bowl game.

Virginia Tech and Florida State: Remember their big Week 1 game? Boy, that was a long time ago. Combined record for the preseason Nos. 19 and 20 teams: 10-13.

UConn’s defense

UConn wrapped up its season Saturday with a 57-7 loss to Temple, the 10th time in 12 games the Huskies surrendered at least 49 points.

To say UConn’s defense was awful is disrespecting all previous awful defenses. No, what UConn did this season was historically bad — like Steve Harvey announcing the wrong Miss Universe winner while steering the Titanic into an iceberg made of New Coke. Really bad.

How bad? Here are some fun facts from ESPN’s Stats & Information department:

  • Huskies opponents averaged 1.78 points per minute of possession time this season.

  • UConn allowed 605 points this season. That’s 32 more than the previous worst team.

  • The Huskies have given up more yards in 12 games this season than Alabama has in its past 26 games.

  • They allowed 617 yards per game. That was 57 yards worse than the previous worst team.

  • They allowed as many first-quarter touchdowns this season as Clemson allowed total.

Underrated play of the week

It’s one thing to see a big man running with the ball. That’s always fun. But how about the hands on Indiana’s Mike Barwick Jr. The 307-pound lineman had one of the prettiest picks you’ll see, showing off the reach, the focus and the delicate hands.

Underrated game of the week

OK, so Navy and Tulane weren’t playing for any championships or rivalry trophies, but the Green Wave did need a win to get bowl-eligible, and they got it in dramatic fashion. Justin McMillan threw a 26-yard touchdown pass with 1:27 to go to pull Tulane to within a point, and rather than tie it up, Willie Fritz rolled the dice Dana Holgorsen style and went for two, the win and the bowl bid. It worked, as McMillan connected with Charles Jones for the conversion. Now, if only Tulane were in a city to really celebrate a win like that.

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