In normal times, Saturday would have been the finale of the regular season, a chance for divisional powers to secure a spot in a conference championship game or for in-state rivals to afford their fan base license to jeer their neighbors in grocery stores, churches and office cubicles for the next year. In normal times, the last Saturday in November represents tradition and history.
In 2020, it offered something completely different and yet still uniquely exhilarating.
In the aftermath of a 70-41 win, Buffalo coach Lance Leipold had to apologize Saturday. He had pulled his star tailback on the final drive, hoping to rest a guy with 36 carries already in the books, helplessly unaware that he had just ripped history from Jaret Patterson’s grasp.
Then there was Missouri, which was also dominant Saturday. The Tigers’ defense held Vanderbilt scoreless. Afterward, the only story was about a kicker who, on the stat sheet, contributed just a single kickoff but in the process kicked her way through another of sports’ most defining glass ceilings.
In South Carolina, Trevor Lawrence announced that Clemson’s dominant win over Pitt was his last home game with the Tigers. Maybe. Probably. Possibly. We’ll see how the Jets finish.
There was also Nick Saban watching the Iron Bowl from home, Syracuse losing a game by spiking it on fourth down and The Egg Bowl ending without a single player or coach mimicking an animal doing something salacious.
In other words, it wasn’t a typical rivalry weekend.
Yes, we missed the old rivalries. There was no Clean Old Fashioned Hate, no Palmetto Bowl, no Commonwealth Cup. Even the games we did get failed to match expectations. Texas A&M cruised past LSU. Mississippi State hung with Ole Miss but never led. Saban said he yelled at his TV a few times during the Iron Bowl, but given Alabama’s 42-13 thumping of Auburn, it is likely he had flipped the channel to an airing of “Justice League” on TNT and was furious anyone thought Ben Affleck would make a good Batman.
Lucky for college football fans, we were treated to Sarah Fuller, the first woman to play in a Power 5 football game, suiting up for Vanderbilt. Her second-half kickoff proved her only action, a squib kick she placed perfectly, according to head coach Derek Mason, but she delivered a halftime speech to her team and delivered a powerful message to girls everywhere that no dream is out of reach. It’s worth noting, too, that Fuller now leads the country in fewest kickoff return yards allowed (minimum 1 attempt).
And how about Patterson, who racked up 409 yards on the ground (second-most in FBS history) and eight touchdowns, tied for the FBS record. After he picked up a first down to the Kent State 23 late in the fourth quarter, Leipold pulled Patterson for backup Kevin Marks, who scored two plays later. Had those yards gone to Patterson, he would have owned both records outright. Flummoxed after the game, Leipold waved a stat sheet and lamented his ignorance. He had no clue Patterson was so close to the record. Fittingly, Patterson said he wasn’t aware, either, and didn’t want the attention anyway.
Jaret Patterson rushes for 8 touchdowns and 409 yards in Buffalo’s 70-41 win against Kent State.
In the Big Ten, instead of Ohio State-Michigan headlining the league’s slate, we got Northwestern and Michigan State, in a game between two offenses that promised it wouldn’t be just your Thanksgiving leftovers putting you to sleep. But the Spartans found an unexpected spark behind QB Rocky Lombardi, and the Northwestern playoff bandwagon ran out of gas after just a week on the road.
And down South, instead of one final showdown against South Carolina, Lawrence took the field for the first time in more than a month and delivered a fitting farewell to the home fans at Clemson. He threw for 403 yards and two touchdowns, then offered a heartfelt message to the place he has called home for the past three years.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 29, 2020
Lastly, instead of a last-second come-from-behind win for Syracuse against NC State, we got — well, we got a series of plays that pretty perfectly summed up Syracuse football in 2020. Trailing by seven with 24 seconds to play, QB Rex Culpepper scrambled for 11 seconds before inexplicably taking a sack. He then rushed his team to the line for a fourth-down play and … spiked it. It was an embarrassing moment even for a school that nearly lost to Bryant in basketball the day before.
Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper takes a sack on third-and-goal, then spikes it on fourth down giving NC State the win.
No, this certainly wasn’t the rivalry weekend we might have hoped for in 2020, but it did remind us that sometimes the best twists in a college football season come from the strangest places. It reminded us that Penn State can still add a little salt to Michigan’s wounds, that even down 22 in the second half, Gus Malzahn still loves kicking field goals and that Rutgers is no longer a punch line.
More than anything, it reminded us that there is always hope for something miraculous on a college football Saturday. Unless you spike it on fourth down.
Whether Ohio State can play enough games to qualify for the Big Ten title game is a massive question looming over the sport, but Justin Fields’ Heisman hopes are also all but evaporated if the Buckeyes can’t get back on the field next week.
1. Florida QB Kyle Trask
Trask had just three touchdown passes and threw six incompletions. The fact that those numbers are disappointing is why he’s atop this list. But more importantly, this shirt should win all the Heismans.
This shirt though ? pic.twitter.com/O3KLnFgt8Z
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) November 28, 2020
2. Alabama QB Mac Jones
Fun fact: Jones now has nine passing touchdowns against Auburn in his career, the same total as Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts combined.
3. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Remember Lawrence? He’s the guy with the hair who used to be the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman before disappearing from action for a month? Well, turns out, he’s still good. Lawrence threw for 400 yards in an easy win over Pitt and remains on track to get a makeup date with Notre Dame in the ACC championship.
4. BYU QB Zach Wilson
Barring a scheduling change, BYU will go 37 days between games vs. FBS opponents, and that’s not good for Wilson’s Heisman campaign. He’s absolutely one of the best players in college football, but at this point, it might be a surprise if Heisman voters viewed things much differently than the playoff committee does when it comes to evaluating Wilson and the Cougars.
5. Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson
We have a firm rule here: If you double-up Al Bundy’s famed four-TD game at Polk High, you’re automatically added to the Heisman list.
Michigan makes history … and not the good kind
Give Jim Harbaugh some credit: There was a reason he hadn’t made a QB change earlier this year. The Cade McNamara show turned out to be every bit as ugly as the Joe Milton show, with the duo combining for just 112 yards through the air Saturday. Who would’ve imagined Michigan fans would long for the days of Shea Patterson?
The Nittany Lions score all three touchdowns on the ground as they fight for a 27-17 win over Michigan.
Meanwhile, Sean Clifford was solid, if unspectacular, leading Penn State to a long-awaited win. It was far from a performance that will change perceptions of the Nittany Lions’ season, but according to Elias Sports Bureau data, they did manage a historic feat. Saturday’s was Michigan’s 1,350th game in program history, and it was the first time the Wolverines have ever lost to a team that was 0-5 or worse.
That’s the kind of loss that gets you an interview with the Jets.
Who caught it better?
We’re stealing People Magazine’s “Who wore it better?” bit and applying it to receivers this week. So, which one-handed catch is more impressive?
Option 1: Clemson’s Cornell Powell takes it 70 yards to the house.
Clemson’s Cornell Powell makes a nice one-handed catch that goes for 70 yards.
Option 2: Mississippi State’s Jaden Walley looking the safety in the eye as he hauls it in.
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) November 29, 2020
Our pick: Moose out front should’ve told ya, we’re going with Walley World — mostly because we wanted to make a “National Lampoon’s Vacation” joke.
Under-the-radar play of the day
ECU pulled out all the stops in a massive upset of SMU, including a 35-yard touchdown throw by receiver Tyler Snead on a trick play. The Pirates were a 12-point underdog in this one but led 45-7 at the half — their largest lead in a game since 2016.
East Carolina’s Tyler Snead takes a handoff in the backfield, then throws it deep to Blake Proehl for a 35-yard touchdown.
Under-the-radar game of the day
OK, technically Oregon State’s stunner against Oregon didn’t come Saturday, but it ended late enough Friday to count. The Beavers erased a 31-19 fourth-quarter deficit and won it following a goal-line replay, a confounding explanation from officials that, if the referee had any sense of humor, would have concluded with “Boom goes the dynamite” and a 1-yard TD run with 33 seconds to play by Chance Nolan, on his first career touch. In the end, we got at least one good rivalry game on the final weekend of November.
Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith lobbies officials to get 4 seconds back on the game clock after Tristan Gebbia was ruled short of the goal line. Chance Nolan ends up muscling into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
Best bets and bad beats
There are bad beats, and then there are the beats that cause people to give up betting for life. Oklahoma State gave us the latter Saturday. Up 19 with just more than six minutes to play, the Cowboys looked like a safe bet to cover the 11.5-point spread. Texas Tech marched 90 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown on the ensuing drive to rattle the nerves of Oklahoma State backers, but after missing the PAT, the Pokes were still in line for the cover after successfully securing the Red Raiders’ on-side kick try. One problem: Dezmon Jackson couldn’t hold on to the football, fumbling on the Pokes’ first play from scrimmage. Texas Tech then went 59 yards for its second TD in 90 seconds. Still, Oklahoma State would have covered, but rather than helping out all the Cowboys’ bettors he had just let down, Jackson took a third-down carry down the sideline for what would have been an easy touchdown — but slid at the 4 to allow Oklahoma State to run out the clock. Final score: Cowboys 50, Red Raiders 44, and a whole bunch of broken TV screens from apoplectic bettors.
After turning an interception into a three-play touchdown drive, Georgia Southern looked to be in line for an easy cover — leading 24-13 early in the fourth quarter — while the under looked safe, too. Turns out, neither was quite so certain. Georgia State scored on its next drive, Georgia Southern missed a field goal, and the Panthers found the end zone again to take a 27-24 lead with 2:54 to play. And if it had ended there, both the spread and the total would have been a push. Unfortunately for backers of the Eagles or the under, Georgia Southern couldn’t hold on to the football, with QB Justin Tomlin fumbling as he was sacked, setting Georgia State up at the Eagles’ 21-yard line. The ensuing field goal with 1:53 to play gave Georgia State the cover and pushed the total over by 3.
Eastern Michigan was getting 6.5 points against Central Michigan and led by nine with fewer than five minutes to play. Easy win, right? OK, if graphic images make you queasy, this would be a good time to stop reading. Central Michigan pulled within two on a 12-play TD drive with 4:34 to go. EMU promptly fumbled, giving the ball back to CMU, which converted the takeaway into a field goal. CMU 24, EMU 23. Still covering. On the next play, EMU QB Preston Hutchinson threw a pick, and Central Michigan scored three plays later to go up by eight. Even then, EMU had solid field position to start its final drive, but once again, Hutchinson threw an INT. The Eagles finished the game with turnovers on four of their final six drives, including three straight to end the game and deliver one of the most brutal beats of the day.
There’s something oddly reassuring about Georgia rushing for 332 yards in a game against former offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, now the interim coach at South Carolina, who was once well known in Athens by the familiar refrain, “Run the damn ball, Bobo.” In its win against the Gamecocks, Georgia’s rushing attack put up its most yards in a game since 2017.
Memphis edged Navy 10-7 in a game with shockingly little offense. The total for the game was set at 63, making this the most points a game has gone under the total this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Tigers are just the third team to win a game while scoring 10 points or fewer this season.
Colorado beat San Diego State 20-10, another strong outing for the Buffaloes under first-year coach Karl Dorrell. Colorado is now one of 14 remaining unbeaten teams and one of just six remaining undefeated Power 5 schools, a list that also includes Notre Dame (9-0), Alabama (8-0), Ohio State (4-0), Washington (3-0) and USC (3-0).
Speaking of Washington, the Huskies came back from a 21-0 halftime deficit to beat Utah 24-21. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Pac-12 teams had been 3-148 when trailing by 21 at the half over the past 15 seasons, and Washington hadn’t erased a halftime deficit that large since Nov. 12, 1998, against Cal.
John Mayers booted a 30-yard field goal as time expired to lift Baylor over Kansas State, 32-31. This comes just a week after Baylor lost in the same fashion on a last-second kick by Texas Tech.