MORE DASH: Big 12’s Rough Start | Best, Worst Statues | Coronavirus Spin Report
FOURTH QUARTER: FIRST LOOKS
Some season debuts and new situations to watch in another muted week in the sport:
Chuba Hubbard (31), Heisman Trophy contender. The Oklahoma State running back who put up more than 2,000 rushing yards last year and put his coach in the corner this offseason gets his first action of 2020. The Cowboys host Tulsa in a game that was postponed a week due to problematic ‘rona levels in the Golden Hurricane program. Hubbard rolled for 256 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Tulsa last year, one of his four 200-yard running games. (This is also a significant game for the Big 12, which has just two games on tap and needs to win them both after a bleak Week One.)
Luke Fickell (32), America’s hottest coach. He’s 22–5 over the last two seasons and turned down Michigan State in February, knowing that he’s got a good gig at Cincinnati and better opportunities than the Spartans on the horizon. Fickell’s fourth Bearcats team should again be excellent defensively, after leading the American Athletic Conference in fewest points allowed in league games for two straight years. A rebuilt receiving corps will be a key piece for an offense that didn’t make a lot of explosive plays in 2019. This should be a low-stress tuneup against FCS Austin Peay, already playing its third game (all away from home).
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (33), ranked team. Last time they were in ranked, it was 1943 and the school was known as Southwestern Louisiana Institute. That in itself was an interesting story: During World War II, the school was in the midst of a financial crisis when its president persuaded the Navy to locate some of its officer training programs to the college. That led to an influx of football talent, a 5-0-1 season and an Oil Bowl triumph over Arkansas A&M. Flash forward 77 years and Louisiana is the No. 19 team in the land after upsetting Iowa State. The Cajuns visit Georgia State at noon Saturday.
DCs turned HCs (34). The head-coach hiring trend in recent years has been offense, offense, offense. But two Power 5 teams introduce new bosses who came from the defensive side of the ball—Dave Aranda at Baylor and Jeff Hafley at Boston College. Both were part of playoff teams in 2019, Aranda as the defensive coordinator at LSU and Hafley in the same role at Ohio State. Aranda’s debut is against Houston in a game that was abruptly scheduled Saturday, and Hafley opens at Duke. Both have some rebuilding work to do—Aranda is overhauling a very good defense that lost nine starters while Hafley is replacing BC’s all-time leading rusher in AJ Dillon. Getting Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec immediately eligible at quarterback should help the Eagles.
Central Florida (35), America’s most opted-out team. The Knights announced in early September that 10 players were opting out for 2020, including two defensive starters and a veteran backup quarterback. But UCF still has a well-stocked roster and has been established as a touchdown favorite over a Georgia Tech team that upset Florida State Saturday. “Looking forward to the guys that have been here getting prepared and going to play football,” coach Josh Heupel said Monday. “This year more than any other year, you’re dependent not just on your starters but the guys underneath them, being ready to play.” Speaking of depth: Former star quarterback McKenzie Milton, still trying to come back from a devastating leg injury in 2018, will not play “the first couple weeks of the season,” Heupel said. “His health is continuing to get better.” Starting QB Dillon Gabriel will be backed up by senior Quadry Jones.
Willie Taggart (36), starting over. After being fired in less than two seasons at Florida State, Taggart moved to the south end of the state and took over at Florida Atlantic. His debut with the Owls comes against Georgia Southern Saturday, with the Eagles hoping to get back some of their whopping 33 players who were out in their opener. Taggart is following the Power 5 to Group of Five career path of two other guys making their second-season debuts Saturday, Liberty’s Hugh Freeze (against Western Kentucky) and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen (against Baylor).
STAT OF THE WEEK
As long as Lincoln Riley is the coach, expect every Oklahoma quarterback (37) to open the season absolutely on fire. This is Riley’s fourth year as head coach, with four different starters, and the results have been stunningly similar and impressive.
In 2017 against UTEP, Baker Mayfield completed 19 of 20 passes for 329 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Pass efficiency rating: 282.7.
In 2018 against Florida Atlantic, Kyler Murray completed 9 of 11 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Pass efficiency rating: 301.4.
In 2019 against Houston, Jalen Hurts completed 20 of 23 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Pass efficiency rating: 251.3. He also ran for 176 yards and three TDs.
And in 2020 against Missouri State, Spencer Rattler put these numbers on the board: 14 of 17 passing for 290 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. Pass efficiency rating: 303.0.
Combined season-opening efficiency rating: 280.3. Which is completely preposterous. Of course, we’re talking about two Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 draft picks (Mayfield and Murray) plus a third Heisman finalist (Hurts). As a redshirt freshman, Rattler is well on his way to living up to the lineage.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Billy Napier (38), Louisiana. The only things Napier hadn’t done in his first two seasons in Lafayette were beat a Power 5 team (0–3) and beat Appalachian State (0–4). Cross the first off the list, after the Ragin’ Cajuns took down Iowa State 31–14 Saturday in the first whoa upset of 2020. Napier brought back a good nucleus from an 11–3 2019 squad and it showed immediately. This could be the best team in the Sun Belt and potentially the best team in the Group of Five, although there is considerable competition for that honor. As for the second unchecked box on Napier’s to-do list: Louisiana is scheduled to play App State on Oct. 7.
COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE THE BUS TO WORK
Mike Norvell (39), Florida State. With expectations high for an upgrade after three dismal seasons, Norvell’s debut in Tallahassee instead was a distressingly familiar bust. After being upset 16–13 by Georgia Tech, the Seminoles now have lost four straight openers with three different coaches—Jimbo Fisher, Taggart and now Norvell. The big hope was that Norvell’s offensive acumen that was on display at Memphis would translate quickly to FSU, but after scoring 13 points, committing three turnovers, surrendering three sacks and averaging just 4.6 yards per pass attempt, the Noles’ offense looks just as bad as it did the last two seasons. Norvell will have to make a decision whether QB James Blackman can do the job; he’s thrown nearly 700 collegiate passes but still makes plenty of mistakes.
When thirsty in South Bend and faced with a downtown that has basically shut down restaurant food by 9 p.m., The Dash recommends grabbing a bag of beef jerky, some Fritos and a four-pack of Westy IPA (40), from Bare Hands Brewery in nearby Granger, Ind. (Where the website invites you to “join us outdoors on Sundays for beer and yoga.”) Westy is quality stuff, good enough to spruce up a hotel-room dinner. Try it and thank The Dash later.
MORE DASH: Big 12’s Rough Start | Best, Worst Statues | Coronavirus Spin Report
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