Four Downs: When The College Football Upset Bug Bites

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Upsets in college football seem contagious. It’s one of those strange phenomenons that cannot be rationalized or explained away with any metric.

And thank the Gridiron Gods that’s the case. How boring would the sport be if each Saturday went chalk?

The upset is a central component of college football’s soul. And this week, college football had more soul than Aretha Franklin.

This is Four Downs.

FIRST DOWN: BIT BY THE UPSET BUG

The upset virus spread like plague this weekend, with four Top 10-ranked teams losing on the road to conference opponents. Three of them — Clemson, Washington and Washington State — were previously unbeaten, but tripped up against competition that, between the three — Syracuse, Cal and Arizona State — had not one above-.500 record between them coming into the weekend.

The fourth, Auburn, fell to an LSU bunch that just two weeks ago was completely outplayed by Troy. Troy since went on to lose by double digits to South Alabama.

Speaking of the Troy-South Alabama matchup, that pairing of in-state Sun Belt Conference counterparts put the single greatest rivalry trophy on the line Wednesday night. The week’s first game also provided Patient Zero for this particular round of the upset virus. South Alabama’s stunning, 19-8 win set the tone for what was to follow.

Top 15-ranked College Football Playoff dreamers Miami, Oklahoma and USC all very nearly met fates similar to their highly ranked peers. Miami and USC both rallied from deficits to escape with one-point wins, Oklahoma with a four-point victory after nearly squandering its own lead.

Add Wisconsin’s single-possession defeat of Purdue to the mix, and this was very nearly an apocalypse weekend for Playoff hopefuls.

As it stands, Alabama is cruising to the No. 1 overall seed, with Penn State, TCU and Georgia seemingly filling out the four spots if the College Football Playoff started today…which it doesn’t.

Surely, another round of the upset bug will spread around the nation. As this weekend proved, you never know when or against what opponent it’s coming. Who could have envisioned Arizona State, which gave up 303 yards rushing to Bryce Love its last time out, completing shutting down the Washington offense?

How does Cal go from three consecutive losses, all by double-digits, to absolutely waylaying Washington State?

In what reality does a Syracuse team that lost at home to MTSU beat the defending national champion, Clemson?

Logic takes a vacation when the bug bites.

SECOND DOWN: IMPRESSIVE COACHING COMEBACKS

UAB’s Bill Clark and Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford both returned as college football head coaches in the 2017 season, albeit under different circumstances. Clark’s UAB program was shut down following the 2014 season, then resurrected a few months later.

Since UAB players were granted their transfers, Clark didn’t have the numbers to field a team. The 2017 season marked #TheReturn of UAB football; and what a glorious return it’s been.

The Blazers scored their second dramatic Conference USA win in as many weeks, this time knocking off MTSU, 25-23. The victory comes one week after an upset of presumptive C-USA West favorite Louisiana Tech. What’s more, UAB can now declare transitive superiority over defending national champion Clemson < Syracuse < MTSU.

That’s reason to cheer.

Jeff Tedford last headed a college football program in 2012, the end of what began as a wildly successful tenure at Cal that soured in his latter years.

Fresno State’s hire of Tedford after a disastrous, 1-win 2016 was met with its share of skepticism. The Bulldogs’ 4-2 start should silence any cynicism for the time being. Fresno State’s only losses came to College Football Playoff participants Alabama and Washington, which, at the beginning of the day, had a 12-0 record between them.

Fresno State ran roughshod over New Mexico, 38-0, and by virtue of San Diego State’s loss to Boise State, the Bulldogs sit atop the Mountain West’s West division. Fresno Stated heads to America’s Finest City next week for a pivotal showdown.

That a program that didn’t exist for two years, and another coming off a 1-win season are both in line for bowl bids this season is nothing short of remarkable. How much support either Clark or Tedford might garner for National Coach of the Year, I don’t know. But at this juncture, both are worthy.

THIRD DOWN: TATE FOR HEISMAN?

Can a player with just one start and essentially two games to his name in a six-game season be considered a legitimate candidate for the Heisman?

Perhaps not. But as various contenders have risen and faded in this college football season, including some just this weekend, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is at least worthy of a mention.

In his first start of the 2017 season, Tate followed up on the “magic” of his performance in relief of Brandon Dawkins a week ago at Colorado by debuting new tricks against UCLA.

Tate rushed for 230 yards — 97 fewer than he totaled against Colorado, but still plenty impressive when you consider his 557 in two games would have landed him in the nation’s Top 20 for season-long production heading into Saturday.

By adding two more rushing touchdowns, Tate has as many scores on the ground as Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley. Now, tack on another two passing touchdowns.

Tate has particularly filled a Heisman highlight reel already in two games. His insertion into the lineup has breathed new life into Arizona, which joins USC and Arizona State (seriously) in first place atop the Pac-12 South.

FOURTH DOWN: PLAYING TO WIN

One of Saturday’s earliest game and one of its later entries both came down to similar endings. In both cases, eschewing conventional, conservative thinking did not pay off.

Eastern Michigan attempted a two-point conversion that, if successful, would have beaten Army.

The Eagles lost three straight coming into Army; all by a single possession, all against favored competition. The trio included MAC preseason division favorites Toledo and Ohio, as well as SEC foe Kentucky.

Considering the string of recent near-misses, head coach Chris Creighton opting to play for the win when the opportunity presented itself makes sense. The play came literally inches from converting.

“We’d decided, there was eight minutes left and they had the ball at our 40’ish. I thought, ‘This could take six or seven minutes,'” Creighton said, an allusion to Army’s time-consuming option offense.

The physical toll inherent with facing long drives similarly motivated Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.

Utah’s lost to USC by the exact same final score, 28-27. Whittingham made the same decision, playing for the win in regulation on the road as opposed to going to overtime and perhaps delaying the inevitable. He said afterward that he would make the same call again, and running back Zack Moss echoed the sentiment.

Troy Williams was stopped just short, courtesy of a fantastic open-field tackle by Ajene Harris.

This season has had a few such misfires now, with Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson making a similar call in the second overtime against Tennessee. Considering the Vols’ struggles since, including an offensive anemic loss to South Carolina Saturday, while Georgia Tech led Miami for the better part of 60 minutes in a one-point loss, the outcome of that season-opening contest feels especially peculiar.

A possible byproduct of these misfires is influencing future decisions to go for two in late-game situations. Despite the misses, I stand with Whittingham’s sentiment. Go for the win when you have the opportunity.

EXTRA POINT: MEAN GREEN VICTORY

UTSA rallied after trailing North Texas much of the way Saturday, only for the Mean Green to deliver one of the most spectacular, buzzer-beating wins you will see in this or any season.