The longest college football season ever is limping toward a finish. And for some programs, the 2020 season has been more painful than others.
The field of legitimate candidates for the College Football Playoff is pretty limited as we turn the corner toward the conference championship games next Saturday. Those in contention for the national title are the usual suspects.
But some of the other big-name programs — programs that had big dreams entering the season — have been mighty disappointing.
Here are some of the most notable examples.
Auburn: Auburn just seems stuck in mediocrity, and a 10-game SEC-only schedule just further exposed that. Auburn pulled out a 24-10 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night to finish 6-4 on the year, but it was not a very inspiring performance — especially on offense. The Tigers led just 6-3 at the half and had only 55 passing yards at that point. It was the latest example of Auburn only beating the SEC’s bottom-feeders. In fact, Auburn hasn’t beaten a single team with a winning record this year, and its average margin of defeat against teams with winning records is 20.3 points. The Tigers also lost to South Carolina, a team that finished the year 2-8. Yuck.
LSU: Saturday night’s upset over Florida was the unquestioned highlight of the weekend, but it’s not enough to overshadow how lackluster this season has been for LSU. The Tigers are the national champions, after all, and a 4-5 record through nine games would not have been in the realm of even the biggest pessimist’s possibilities when the season began. But it was clear there would be issues when LSU opened its season with a 44-34 loss to Mississippi State. The defense has struggled mightily and the roster has been gutted by injuries and opt-outs. The win over Florida, though, could give LSU some good vibes as it approaches the offseason. A win next week over Ole Miss to get to .500 would certainly be welcomed by LSU fans, too.
Michigan: Michigan has pretty consistently finished below expectations under Jim Harbaugh, but those expectations have been extremely high. Like unrealistically high. But the performance we’ve seen from the Wolverines this year went beyond anything any UM fan could have foreseen. Michigan has a miserable 2-4 record, with one of those wins being a 3OT effort against Rutgers. There was a bad loss to Michigan State, a 38-point beatdown by a depleted Wisconsin team and then a 10-point loss to a winless Penn State team. Harbaugh, if he sticks around in Ann Arbor, has a lot of work to do to get the Wolverines back in contention for a Big Ten title.
Nebraska: Nobody thought it would be easy for Scott Frost to revitalize Nebraska’s program. But it wasn’t expected to be this hard either. In three years at his alma mater, Frost has an 11-20 record with just an 8-17 mark in Big Ten play. The Huskers lost 24-17 at home to Minnesota on Saturday to drop to 2-5 on the year. The Gophers were missing 33 players due to a combination of virus and injury issues, yet they still went into Lincoln and took it to Frost’s team. Frost’s offenses at UCF were dynamic, but the Huskers have been unable to consistently throw the ball in recent seasons. With three straight losing seasons under his belt, Frost is still looking for answers.
Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy’s group closed out the regular season with an easy 42-3 win over Baylor and sits at 7-3 entering the postseason. But with players like Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace on offense, this is a team that really should have been in the mix for a Big 12 title. The Cowboys lost a game they should have won at Texas and then were blown out by Oklahoma. A loss last week to a mediocre TCU team put the bow on a season that could have been so much more. OSU has not won the Big 12 since 2011.
Penn State: Penn State was ranked in the top 10 when it began its season, but soon plummeted out of the Top 25 altogether amid a horrific 0-5 start. It was the first 0-5 start in program history. The loss to Indiana was controversial. The loss to Ohio State was expected. But the way PSU performed against teams like Maryland and Nebraska was flat-out unacceptable. To their credit, the Nittany Lions have since won three straight to close out the regular season. But a 3-5 record is a far cry from being a College Football Playoff contender.
Tennessee: Tennessee closed out the 2019 season with six straight wins and then opened 2020 with two more victories. Spirits were high in Knoxville, and then they came crashing down as the Vols lost six consecutive games. To make matters worse, all six of those losses were by double digits. Tennessee finally stopped that streak by beating Vanderbilt on Saturday, but the sense of optimism that was felt among the Vol faithful earlier this year has been thrown out the window. And understandably so.
Texas: Hopes were high in Austin entering 2020, but those hopes were quickly dashed when UT lost back-to-back games to TCU and Oklahoma back in October. The Longhorns rallied to put themselves in position for a spot in the Big 12 title berth, but they blew a late lead at home against Iowa State and ultimately finished the regular season with a 5-3 conference record (6-3 overall). That was only good enough for fourth place in the Big 12. The school reportedly pursued Urban Meyer behind the scenes, but when that pursuit came up empty, Chris Del Conte put out a halfhearted vote of confidence for Tom Herman entering 2021. Good luck, Tom.
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech managed to beat rival Virginia on Saturday to close out the regular season, but it still finished the year with a losing record (5-6). It marks the second losing record in the last three seasons under Justin Fuente. Before Fuente’s arrival, Virginia Tech hadn’t had a losing record in a single season since 1992. Before the win over UVA, Virginia Tech had lost four consecutive games, including blowouts at the hands of Pittsburgh and Clemson. There was also a 38-35 to Liberty.
Wisconsin: Remember back on Oct. 23 when Wisconsin destroyed Illinois in the Big Ten opener and Graham Mertz looked incredible? Well, things disintegrated quickly from there. Wisconsin dealt with a significant COVID-19 outbreak and missed two games, only to come back and destroy Michigan. At 2-0, the Badgers were ranked No. 10 in the country going into Northwestern on Nov. 21. It did not go well. They lost 17-7 to the Wildcats and have since lost two more games, scoring a combined 20 points over that three-game span. The lack of a top-flight RB like Jonathan Taylor has really hurt Wisconsin in 2020.
– Sam Cooper
Here are this weekend’s winners and losers:
San Jose State: The Spartans are heading to the Mountain West championship game. SJSU moved to 6-0 with a 30-20 comeback win over Nevada on Friday night. San Jose State trailed 20-7 at halftime before taking the lead with 2:34 to go in the third quarter on a five-yard pass from Nick Starkel to Derrick Deese. Tyler Nevens added a TD at the end of the third and a field goal in the fourth quarter was enough as the defense pitched a second-half shutout. SJSU will play Boise State for the MWC title on Dec. 19.
Alabama: Alabama became the first team to go 10-0 in the SEC with a 52-3 win over Arkansas on Saturday. The No. 1 Crimson Tide rushed 38 times for 216 yards and had six rushing touchdowns as the defense forced four Arkansas turnovers and held the Razorbacks to just 188 total yards. The Crimson Tide can move to 11-0 with a win over Florida in the SEC championship game on Dec. 19.
Georgia: Are we allowed to say the Bulldog offense can be explosive now? No. 9 Georgia scored 35 consecutive points in a 49-14 blowout of No. 25 Missouri on Saturday. USC transfer JT Daniels was 16-of-27 for 299 yards and three touchdowns as George Pickens had five catches for 126 yards and two scores. The Bulldogs also ran 45 times for 316 yards as four different players scored a rushing touchdown. A win over Vanderbilt next week will ensure that Georgia heads to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Northwestern: The No. 14 Wildcats made easy work of Illinois on Saturday. Northwestern scored 14 points in each of the second and third quarters to win 28-10 and move to 6-1 ahead of a Big Ten championship game matchup with Ohio State. The Wildcats rushed 58 times for 411 yards on the Illini as QB Peyton Ramsey threw just 12 times. That’s a recipe that probably won’t work against Ohio State, but it was plenty good enough to drop Illinois to 2-5.
Vanderbilt K Sarah Fuller: Fuller became the first woman to score points in a Power Five conference college football game with two extra points in Vanderbilt’s loss to Tennessee. Interim coach Todd Fitch said after the game that Fuller had earned her role as the team’s extra point and short field goal kicker during practice because of her accuracy on the kicks. And she proved it on Saturday with two kicks that were indisputable.
Army: The Black Knights just dominated Navy on Saturday for a fourth straight win in the annual rivalry game. Army won 15-0 at a foggy Michie Stadium hosting its first Army-Navy game since 1943. The Black Knights threw just one pass and that was complete for 28 yards from Tyheir Tyler to Tyrell Robinson. The lack of a passing game wasn’t a detriment because the defense held Navy to 117 yards and just four first downs. Army is now 8-2 before a game against Air Force and will head to the Independence Bowl while Navy is 3-7.
Rutgers: Give it up for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers is 3-5 after beating Maryland 27-24 in overtime on Saturday. The win means Rutgers has as many conference wins in 2020 under coach Greg Schiano than it did during Chris Ash’s entire tenure before him. It wasn’t the prettiest of wins; Rutgers was 7-of-21 on third downs and threw 35 passes for just 148 yards, but it was effective enough for a victory. Could Rutgers go to a bowl game? It’s not impossible.
Ball State: The Cardinals are going to the MAC championship game after surviving a wild final play in a 30-27 win over Western Michigan. The Cardinals scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and went ahead when Jack Knight kicked a 22-yard field goal with 29 seconds left. It’s the first MAC title game trip for Ball State since 2008 as the team searches for its first conference title and a trip to a decent bowl game.
UAB: The Blazers will play Marshall on Friday night for the Conference USA title after a 21-16 win over Marshall on Saturday. UAB played just four conference games because of COVID-19 but went 3-1 in C-USA play to clinch the West division title. QB Tyler Johnston was 9-of-18 passing for 217 passing for two touchdowns and also led the team with 41 yards rushing. The Blazers have now won three straight C-USA West titles.
Miami: The Hurricanes had a chance to play one more game at Hard Rock Stadium and might have epically blown that opportunity. No. 10 Miami lost 62-26 to No. 17 North Carolina on Saturday as the Tar Heels accrued an astounding 778 yards of total offense. UNC rushed for 554 yards and six touchdowns while QB Sam Howell rushed for a TD, caught a TD and threw for a TD. The Tar Heels are now 8-3 and in line to go to the Orange Bowl if both Clemson and Notre Dame make the playoff.
Arizona: The Wildcats got embarrassed on Friday night and fired coach Kevin Sumlin on Saturday. Sumlin went 9-20 at Arizona and Friday night’s game was his 12th consecutive loss. It was bad. Really, really bad. Arizona State won 70-7 as Arizona had seven turnovers. The Wildcats also gave up a 100-yard kickoff return to start the game. Not great. And a big reason why Arizona will have a new coach in 2021.
Colorado: The No. 21 Buffaloes’ undefeated season disappeared in a 38-21 home loss to Utah on Saturday. Colorado was up 21-10 to start the third quarter but gave up five consecutive scores to Utah as the Utes turned the game around in the second half. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley was 20-of-32 passing for 240 yards and two TDs with one interception and Ty Jordan had 17 carries for 147 yards and two scores.
Nebraska: The Huskers exist in 2020 to play football, lose at football and get dunked on by their opponents. A shorthanded Minnesota team beat Nebraska 24-17 on Saturday to drop the Huskers to 2-5 on the season. Nebraska really wanted to play football in 2020 and it got its wish. Minnesota made sure to let it know after the game too.
Good game Nebraska. Thanks for bringing back B1G football.
— Minnesota Gophers (@GopherSports) December 12, 2020
Wisconsin: Remember when the Badgers were ranked No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings? Remarkably, that was just a week ago. The Badgers lost to Indiana to drop out of the top 25 a week ago and then fell 28-7 to Iowa on Saturday. Wisconsin had just 225 total yards against the Hawkeyes and was especially brutal rushing the football. Wisconsin had 33 rushes for just 56 yards. The Badgers are now 2-3 on the season and will probably end up in a lower-tier bowl game.
Duke: The Blue Devils have low-key been one of the worst teams in college football this season. Duke fell to 2-9 with a 56-35 loss to Florida State on Saturday. Duke’s only wins came over Charlotte and Syracuse as the program posted its fewest wins in a season since a 1-11 campaign in 2007. That was the season before David Cutcliffe was hired.
Baylor: The Bears were without a remarkable 47 players and staffers against Oklahoma State on Saturday because of COVID-19 and went ahead and played the game. Is a loss better than a cancellation? Oklahoma State beat Baylor 42-3 in a game where Baylor only avoided a shutout because of a fourth-quarter field goal. The Bears had just 156 total yards of offense and threw for 86 yards on 34 passes. That’s 2.5 yards an attempt. Not great.
Northern Illinois: It was a brutal season for the Huskies. And it ended on Saturday with a 41-33 loss to Eastern Michigan. NIU finished the season 0-6 and couldn’t stop anyone. Four teams scored at least 40 points on NIU and everyone scored at least 30 points against the Huskies. The closest loss was a 30-27 defeat at Western Michigan while three games were decided by 17 or more points.
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