No Huddle: Let’s Appreciate the Weirdness of College Football That’s Beyond the Playoff

After last week’s soft opening, the beautifully imperfect but always entertaining sport that is college football made its 2019 grand opening this weekend.

Liberty Coach Hugh Freeze coached (and delivered a post-game media session) from a hospital bed at the Flames’ stadium, an Atlanta strip club trolled Tennessee’s football program on Twitter after Georgia State cashed a $950,000 check for traveling to Knoxville and the Panthers beat the Volunteers 38-30 in Neyland Stadium, North Carolina Coach Mack Brown, 68, busted out some dad dance moves in the middle of a dance circle in a victorious Tar Heels’ locker room, Illinois’ athletics communications staff touted the fact that the Fighting Illini are 1-0 when the school sells beer at Memorial Stadium, and the USC Trojans, whose head coach’s seat could get as hot as any in the country this fall, had a big kickoff return on the first play of their season called back because two players on the field were wearing the same jersey number.

The Trojans, by the way, bobbled and nearly fumbled a snap when they were lined up in a victory formation at the end of the game as they put the finishing touches on a 31-23 win over Fresno State.

Good thing USC’s upcoming schedule, which features games against No. 25 Stanford, at BYU, No. 15 Utah, at No. 12 Washington and at No. 9 Notre Dame, only gets easie– actually, USC Coach Clay Helton may not make it to November.

Speaking of which, fireclayhelton.com is a real, living, breathing website and a well-produced one at that – strictly speaking of the site’s web design. I have a story coming this week on the college football fans who own web domains devoted to firing head coaches and the reasons why they purchased them.

It’s a multi-layered story about protection, profit and paranoia.

After all, ESPN showed the graphic below during the USC-Fresno State game and while some of the names probably aren’t warranted on such a graphic, it only stokes the coals for restless fan bases.

This is what makes college football great – not the fans calling for coaches to get fired, per se – but the intense passion that courses through the veins of everyone involved the sport and the moments that emotion leads to, like Heisman Trophy contender Tua Tagovailoa and his younger brother Taulia warming up together before Alabama played Duke, then Tua celebrating like crazy when Taulia’s first college snap was a hand-off that led to a long touchdown run by Jerome Ford.

Or Auburn’s true freshman quarterback Bo Nix shaking off two interceptions and throwing the game-winning touchdown to beat No. 11 Oregon in the fourth quarter while his father, former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, and grandfather celebrated in the stands.

These emotional/viral/made-for-Hollywood moments happen weekly, everywhere from the top-10 matchup that’s on primetime to a game between unranked teams that’s played late at night on the West Coast on a channel that takes a few minutes of searching to even find on your TV guide.

Focusing solely on the College Football Playoff, which drives so much of the discussion about the sport, is losing the forest through the trees. Only four teams will make the playoff (and only 10 schools have qualified for it in the first five years), while 126 will be left out.

Recent history says that as soon as your team suffers its second loss, it can cast its playoff hopes aside.

And the selection committee has said, through its actions, that any team outside of the Power Five and Notre Dame probably doesn’t have any playoff hopes to begin with.

The playoff will be waiting for us – first on November 5 when the 2019 CFP rankings debut, then on December 8 when the four-team field is announced and the semifinals will be played on December 28.

We can spend the final month of the season arguing about which conference is deepest, which team’s non-conference schedule was the toughest and whether it’s fair or not that the SEC only plays eight conference games compared to the nine conference games that the rest of the Power Five conferences play.

Those debates are great for Twitter, daytime television and talk radio.

They’re available to us every year and they’ll never be settled. In fact, they’ve already started this fall.

But I woke up Sunday morning appreciating the weird, the quirky and the feel-good moments from Saturday’s games, not pondering whether Clemson beat Georgia Tech more emphatically than Alabama beat Duke or who projects to have the best resume of non-conference wins.

And I think we’d all be better off doing so because after all, it’s just a game and games are supposed to be fun.

You can keep your conference superiority debates on September 1, I’ll be looking at Hugh Freeze memes.

 

Here’s a play design that I liked

Points were at a premium in No. 25 Stanford’s 17-7 win over Northwestern and the first score of the game came with just over three minutes to play in the first half.

On 2nd & Goal, Stanford lined up with a single set back formation with three tight ends on the field, including two to the left and 6-7 Colby Parkinson split wide to the right. Quarterback K.J. Costello faked a hand-off to running back Cameron Scarlett, drawing the defense to the left side of Stanford’s line and setting up the play-action pass.

Costello then ran a bootleg to the right as wide receiver Michael Wilson snuck from left to right behind his offensive line and ran a crossing route three yards behind the line of scrimmage as Parkinson cut in to block the linebacker who was covering Wilson.

Wilson caught a pass from Costello and successfully dove for the pylon as he was tackled.

By the way, it’s not a great look when one of the best quarterbacks in the sport gets knocked out of the game on a missed targeting penalty, just weeks after the NCAA and College Football Officiating board sent out a massive email explaining how instant replay would be utilized to officiate targeting this season.

 

Bad beat of the week

My thoughts are with those who bet actual U.S. currency on Northwestern football yesterday, which when I type that out, seems like it might be a call for help if that’s where your discretionary income is going.

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt loves highlighting “bad beats” on his late-night SportsCenter show and the ending to Stanford-Northwestern was an all-timer. Northwestern (+6.5) was trailing Stanford 10-7 with 30 seconds to play and the ball at its own 22-yard line.

The Wildcats had no timeouts and they had to flip the field in two, maybe three, plays to even have a chance to tie the game with a long field goal. The most likely outcome seemed to be that Northwestern would throw towards the sidelines once or twice to make the most of its final 30 seconds, then maybe try a deep shot for the end zone if it only had enough time for one more play.

Instead, Stanford rushed four players against seven Northwestern blockers and the Cardinal defenders were still able to get to quarterback Hunter Johnson roughly two seconds after the snap, hitting him at Northwestern’s 7-yard line as he tried to throw.

The ball squirted out, bouncing just across the goal line into the Wildcats’ end zone.

A Northwestern offensive lineman whiffed as he tried to fall on it, which still would’ve preserved Northwestern +6.5 if there was a safety, and instead, Stanford’s Jordan Fox recovered it for a touchdown.

If you had money on Stanford -6.5 and won your bet, just know that you’re now in a slight karmic debt.

Maybe you’ll spill your coffee on the way to work one morning or your go-to fast food restaurant will be out of your favorite item on the menu, but that’s what happens when backdoor your way to win money off of a weird fumble recovery for a touchdown with 20 seconds to play in a game.

 

Fact or Fiction: Can Jerry Jeudy get 15-20 touches per game?

As part of my weekly column, I’d like to introduce a segment called “Fact or Fiction?”

Think of it as snopes.com for college football analysis, whether it’s something a color commentator says during a telecast, a studio analyst previewing an upcoming matchup on TV on a Tuesday night or a proclamation from a head coach during his midweek press conference.

College football – football in general, really – lends itself to cliches and overused statements about things like physicality, establishing the run and “doing the little things.” My goal is to quantify those types of statements or other claims through researched statistics and data analysis in order to find out which ones are true and which ones aren’t.

Which statements sound good and are often repeated on TV but have no bearing in truth?

If you see or hear any college football analysis this season that sounds fishy and you’re curious if it’s actually true, send it my way via email at awittry@watchstadium.com or on Twitter @AndyWittry and I’ll do my best to quantify the statement and try to verify its accuracy.

During No. 2 Alabama’s 42-3 win over Duke, ESPN analyst Brian Griese said Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, needs 15 to 20 touches per game.

“You gotta get Jerry Jeudy involved in other ways, give him the ball [on] hand-offs, give him the ball on little nakeds, down flats, whatever you can do, quick outs,” Griese said on the ABC broadcast.

While I’m not going to disagree with the notion that Alabama needs to maximize the number of touches for the player who was named the best wide receiver in the country last season, I’m more curious about how realistic it is for Jeudy to average 15 touches per game.

Using Sports Reference’s play index tool, I found that the highest single-game reception total since the start of the 2000 season was Eastern Michigan’s Tyler Jones’ 23 receptions against Central Michigan, which tied UNLV’s Randy Gatewood’s single-game FBS record.

There’s no doubt that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa could find Jeudy at least 15 times in a game if the Crimson Tide made a concerted effort to do so. The bigger issues are playing time and availability because Tagovailoa and Jeudy will likely rest for a significant portion of the second half of games once Alabama builds up big leads this season, which should happen with regularity.

Plus, Alabama’s receiving corps is deep and talented outside of Jeudy, so Tagovailoa has at least two or three other future NFL wide receivers he’s throwing to this season.

Somewhat surprisingly, Saturday marked Jeudy’s first college game with more than eight receptions.

He finished with 10 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. Last season he had eight receptions against LSU and he had three games with six, so 15 to 20 touches per game would require him to more than triple his number of touches from last season (68 receptions in 15 games).

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Zay Jones, who played at East Carolina, provides the model for Jeudy’s theoretical 15 to 20 touches per game. Jones had an FBS-record 158 receptions as a senior, which was just shy of Tulsa’s Howard Twilley’s FBS record of 13.4 receptions per game in 1965.

So no college wide receiver in recorded history has averaged 15 receptions per game, let alone 20.

Jeudy has never recorded a rushing attempt at Alabama so while he has the speed and elusiveness to be effective on an occasional reverse or end-around, it clearly hasn’t been part of the Crimson Tide’s playbook.

Now, what if we’re lenient on the intent of the word “touches” and instead replace it with “targets”?

Luckily in July, I happened to do a statistical deep dive on several standout wide receivers who were returning to college football and I counted 96 times that Jeudy was targeted last season.

That’s 6.4 targets per game, so even though Jeudy put up some ridiculous stats like a 14.6 percent touchdown rate when targeted, 33.8 percent of his receptions resulting in gains of at least 20 yards and a 27.5-yard average gain on third-down receptions, Alabama’s leading receiver has a long, long way to go to get anywhere close to 15 to 20 touches per game.

Verdict: Fiction

 

How Not To Tweet

Studies show that social media ineptitude affects one in three college football programs and there’s a good chance it could affect you or a loved one’s favorite team sometime this season.

Symptoms include:

  • Poor Photoshop skills
  • A general lack of understanding of how calendars work
  • Forgetfulness of time and score

 

Unfortunately for the state of Florida, this portion of the column requires me to put two of the state’s flagship universities on blast to provide examples of the kind of social media ineptitude I’m talking about.

Florida and Florida State recently provided lessons in Social Media 101: How Not To Tweet.

In the offseason, Florida State’s football account tweeted a graphic that indicated there were 154 days (as of July 29) until the start of its season. That would be December 30, which is obviously factually incorrect, but it also left the people of Twitter thoroughly confused as to what Florida State’s social media manager was actually going for with the tweet.

Was it supposed to be four days? 15 days? And then days until what? Surely not a game but did the tweet mean until the start of official practice? An intersquad scrimmage?

Who knows.

Then there’s Florida – not the Florida football account but the University of Florida’s Twitter account that represents the entire academic institution – tweeting at midnight Eastern Time on Friday, August 23 that it was game day.

[Narrator:] However, it was in fact not game day.

Florida didn’t play Miami (FL) until Saturday, August 24 and the Hurricanes were quick to point out their rival’s obvious error.

This brings us back to the University of Tennessee, whose football team’s Twitter account was inactive since from 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday until 1:08 p.m ET Sunday. In the time between, the Vols lost a football game.

You may have heard about it.

The account’s last tweet on Saturday was about a field goal the Vols made with 12:05 to play in the fourth quarter against Georgia State.

If you’re fluent in the language of Twitter memes, then you know that the tweet’s 434 replies, 33 retweets and 173 likes are what’s called getting “ratio’d,” essentially meaning that your tweet was so bad that way more people got upset at it and let you know with a reply than the number of people who expressed their agreement or approval through a simple like or retweet.

There’s a great site called thetwitterratio.com, which gives you a historical MLB stat line that matches up with a tweet that was ratio’d, so in this case, which baseball players produced a season that was most similar to batting .434 with 33 home runs and 173 RBI in a season.

The only problem is that Tennessee’s tweet (or more accurately, the final score of the game and the lack of follow-up tweets from the team’s account) made people so mad that there’s no closely comparable baseball season in which a player could match that level of production.

Not even Lou Gehrig’s 1930 season when he batted .379 with 41 home runs and 174 RBI.

So what did Tennessee’s social media manager (or his or her bosses) think was going to happen?

Was that Week 1 game just frozen in time with Tennessee leading 23-21 since that was the last update its Twitter account provided? Did those in Knoxville with the password to the @Vol_Football account think people would just forget what happened inside Neyland Stadium if they never offered up another update from Tennessee’s season-opener?

We live in a world with a 24-hour news cycle, where stories quickly are forgotten and replaced by the next wild headline, but Tennessee football’s silence on Twitter quickly became its own minor story, only deepening the wound of the loss.

 

Q&A with Bruce Feldman

At Big Ten Media Days in July, I had the opportunity to talk to Bruce Feldman, a writer for The Athletic, sideline reporter for FOX Sports and co-host of The Audible podcast.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Stadium: When you have three different roles as a writer, sideline reporter and a podcast host, how do you balance that from a time perspective and if you have a good story, how do you decide what material goes where?

Bruce Feldman: “Fortunately, I think all three jobs kind of go hand-in-hand. You know, there’s a lot of good college football podcasts and I think just because I’m doing games as a sideline reporter, I have probably a different perspective, can bring a different perspective, maybe, than some other folks can.

“About how I balance it, it’s interesting because I’m in our Friday production meetings with coaches and players. You get inside information that you just aren’t going to get, I’m not going to get as a writer in those settings, and there’s kind of a finessing of it because they’re informative but at the same time, it’s like, I don’t think people want them to be – you’re not going to take everything on the record in there.

“I can think of a couple of coaches where you really have to pick your spots about ‘OK, that’s off the record versus on the record.’ But there’s a lot of times where I will prepare 10, 12 sideline hits and you know, you want those to be fresh content and at the same time, I only have 15 seconds, or maybe 10 or maybe 20 seconds to get those in the context of the game, but to have all that information, it’s like, I have a good opportunity to write more about it in more context for The Athletic so they really go hand-in-hand.

“I mean it’s fascinating to kind of see it from the other side because for so long, I watched games, I knew who the people were doing the games, I just didn’t realize how much information you’re able to gather right before so I’ve really been fortunate to get that perspective.”

Stadium: How would you handicap the Big Ten this season and when a team from the Big Ten East has won the last six Big Ten titles, do you think at some point is it worth looking at “Hey, if you have Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State on the same side, is that too much power just for one division?”

Bruce Feldman: “You know, I think to the second part, I think it’s kind of cyclical. I feel like the Big Ten West is getting better, I mean, I think you look at the coaches that have come in just the last few years, certainly with Scott Frost, Jeff Brohm, I think those have been real upgrades and so I would be a little leery of them reshuffling the deck again because it wasn’t that long ago when we were in the Leaders and Legends. There’s too many teams to do what the Big 12 does, which I get why they do it, where it’s one division so you’re insured of a one versus two (championship game).

“Look, Northwestern was very competitive for a while last year, I don’t feel like there is that big of a competitive advantage. You know, you can’t even say, ‘Go look at the ACC’ just because it’s Clemson and everybody else no matter what you do in the divisions, right? For a while it felt like if you were to take the teams in the Pac-12 for instance, when they were the Pac-10, USC was the dominant program and then it went to divisions. Now it’s really been the North that has dominated there too, whether it’s Stanford, at times Oregon or certainly now Washington, so to me, I don’t necessarily think they need to do that just because they’ve done it before.

“In terms of this year, I’m fascinated to see what’s going to go on in Ann Arbor. I mean I think the Josh Gattis hire was a really good one just from talking to the people I know who worked with him, they rave about Josh. I did a story on The Athletic, one of the things that I think will be critical is, he sized up with Joe Moorhead. Joe Moorhead was a godsend in State College and the biggest thing that Joe Moorhead brought was a jolt of confidence just from talking to Josh a lot about it and talking to some other people at Michigan, I think that was important to them. You know, they should have a terrific offensive line. I think that’s a key piece. The question is when will they ever beat the arch-rival?

“I don’t think you’re going to see a huge step back from Ohio State. Justin Fields is as touted as any high school quarterback that’s come out in the last five years but there could be some growing pains, maybe. Not because of Dwayne Haskins but it felt like it took Ohio State a little while, you know they were sputtering at times, they were really good certainly at the end of the year. I’m interested to see how Ryan (Day) does in Year One. I still think they’re going to be a top-10 team, I think Michigan is a top-10 team.

“I think depending on what we get from Michigan State’s offense, their defense can play with anyone. Are we getting Brian Lewerke from two years ago or are we getting the one who, after coming out of injury, his confidence was struggling a little bit? Do they have the firepower to compete with those other teams at the top of the division? I think Penn State will be interesting to watch just because I mentioned Joe Moorhead, you know, they lost Joe Moorhead and Saquon (Barkley), now the other big piece of the resurrection at Penn State, Trace McSorley, is gone.

“So I think James Franklin’s recruited really well, athletically you have a lot of guys, especially on the defense, you know, is there going to be a hiccup? I think there’s people who are skeptical at this point and not necessarily believing. They felt like last year was a down year, they came in 17th. Is there going to be a step up or is it going to be a step back? I think there’s a lot of people who are thinking there’s going to be a step back. I’m interested to see what kind of answers Franklin has.

“To me, the West is deep. I don’t think there’s one great team. I think there are a bunch of teams that will go 8-4 but that’s kind of what we had last year when we did a couple of Northwestern games where they beat Iowa, beat Wisconsin and they didn’t win a non-conference game and they still somehow won the West so I think it’s going to be like that. I think that it’s going to be fun to see where Nebraska’s headed just because of where they’ve been and I think what Scott Frost was able to do at UCF but I’m not ready to predict that they’re going to win the West yet. I’m not sure who I have coming out of there but I don’t know if they’re quite that team.”

MORE: Georgia Spent $2.6M on Recruiting Last Year. How Much Did Your Team Spend?