Four Downs: UCF-USF Delivered a Powerful Performance; Nebraska’s Woeful State

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Each college football season, not counting Week 0, kicks off with a weekend-long smorgasbord of action. It’s the perfect introduction to the most exciting season in sports.

Likewise, the regular season closes out in the same fashion it begins, spreading the entertainment over into a weekend-long event.

From Labor Day Weekend to Thanksgiving Weekend, the college football season is one long holiday. Friday provided ample reason to celebrate. This is Four Downs.

FIRST DOWN: UCF-USF, An All-American Classic

The college football regular season saved its best for the last weekend. UCF’s pursuit of perfection landed the Knights prime TV real estate in the ABC national telecast window, hosting rival USF in a de facto divisional championship.

UCF’s 10-0 start might have drawn the nation’s attention, but USF spent the season ranked in the AP Top 25, tabbed as the preseason favorite to win the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid. A victory over UCF would have positioned the Bulls to retake that goal by the horns as American Athletic Conference East champion with a date next week against nationally ranked Memphis.

The back-and-forth that ensued over the full 60 minutes of the War on I-4 proved UCF and USF worthy not just of a national broadcast window; the Knights and Bulls played the most entertaining game of the 2017 regular season.

Quinton Flowers put on a show, arguably the single-most impressive individual performance of any player in the nation.

Though the USF quarterback had UCF singlehandedly out-gained in yardage for much of the duration, McKenzie Milton came through with enough offensive punch; and speaking of punch, the forced fumble Richie Grant punched away to seal UCF’s win was a thing of beauty.

The transition from BCS to College Football Playoff removed the American from the table. AAC commissioner Mike Aresca and league brass have done their best to brand the conference as the sixth power conference despite the loss of automatic-qualifier designation.

On-field results from the top-tier of the American support the marketing push. In 2015, the American had four teams ranked late in the season — one of which, Houston, rolled in the Peach Bowl. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds really should have been a Heisman finalist that season.

The 2017 season features a first-place team building an intriguing case for the Playoff conversation, a Top 25 showdown in the conference championship game, and arguably the best defensive lineman in the nation wreaking havoc in Ed Oliver.

And yet, 2017 may end with a resounding reminder that the American is, in fact, down a tier from the Power Five.

UCF’s big win comes under the shroud of speculation about the future of head coach Scott Frost, making him the latest in a long and distinguished line of successful American Athletic Conference coaches pilfered by programs awash in TV contract money.

Since 2015, the AAC lost Justin Fuente from Memphis to Virginia Tech; Tom Herman from Houston to Texas; Matt Rhule from Temple to Baylor; and Willie Taggart from USF to Oregon.

The 2017 coaching carousel began turning with some of the most popular names all hailing from the American: Mike Norvell at Memphis; Chad Morris at SMU; the annual drumbeat for Ken Niumatalolo to leave Navy began anew; and the most frequently repeated, UCF’s Scott Frost.

Frost inherited a program that went winless just two seasons. Of course, the former Oregon offensive coordinator did not exactly take over a complete mess, either. The American’s last automatic BCS berth belonged to UCF, which rolled Baylor in the 2013 season’s Fiesta Bowl.

UCF is a program with the necessary ingredients to be a perennial powerhouse, located in a deep recruiting pool, playing in a new stadium that was packed and rocking for a national audience on Friday. And what’s remarkable is that UCF is not alone in that regard.

UCF, USF, Houston, Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati all have qualities that, with the right leadership, can be parlayed into self-perpetuating success. Temple’s proven capable of high peaks. Tulane, situated in a rich recruiting area and playing in a new stadium, could become comparable to Northwestern.

The emphasis on “the right leadership” cannot be overstated, though. Memphis under Larry Porter, Cincinnati with Tommy Tuberville, USF with Skip Holtz and to a lesser extent, Tony Levine at Houston, function as reminders of just how quickly a program can fall off course.

Coaching hires come with inherent risk, and the more frequently an athletic department is having to make hires, the greater the risk. Cincinnati hired Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones in a six-year span; it was only a matter of time before UC ran into a hire like Tuberville.

The challenge the American faces to truly establish itself as a power conference is in keeping successful around long enough to truly build some of these high-potential programs, and produce more nationally relevant moments like Friday’s War on I-4.

Who knows: Perhaps USF coach Charlie Strong — who went from Top 15 rankings and a Sugar Bowl at former American member Louisville to a rough three years at Texas — left Scott Frost know during their post-game handshake that the grass isn’t necessarily greener, even when someone else is offering more green.

SECOND DOWN: The Sad State of Nebraska Football

My college football fandom was shaped during the 1990s, at a time when the Nebraska Cornhuskers provided must-watch football on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Nebraska often met rival Colorado on Black Friday, typically with Big 8 or Big 12, if not national championship, implications at stake.

It’s a brave, new world for the sport. Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Pac-12 in 2011 and have not played since. While Colorado made strides toward restoring past glory with an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game last season, Nebraska has never been further from the peak of my youth than it is now.

The Cornhuskers’ 56-14 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 14 set a new benchmark for worst home loss in program history during the post-World War II era. Friday’s “rivalry” game against Iowa matched that, and sent the Bob Diaco era limping out having surrendered 166 points in the final three games.

Forget Nebraska falling off its former perch at the pinnacle of college football; the program deteriorated to an unrecognizable point. Nebraska’s nowhere near the level of national powerhouses Alabama and Clemson, though that’s been the case for more than a decade. However, the gap between Nebraska and Big Ten West counterpart Wisconsin is a chasm.

UCF went from winless to undefeated in two years under Nebraska alum Scott Frost. As weird as it might seem, however, the problems at UCF were less fundamentally ingrained than those facing the Cornhuskers. Frost came to a program in UCF that played in a BCS/New Year’s Six Bowl three years earlier; Nebraska has not participated in one of the upper echelon postseason games since losing the 2002 BCS Championship in spectacular fashion.

At UCF, high-level recruits can make a short drive to visit practices for unofficial visits. Lincoln is nowhere near any such pipelines — one reason for the Cornhuskers’ relative lack of identity in the past 15 years or so.

The next coaching hire at Nebraska, regardless if Mike Riley’s relieved of his duties over the weekend, next week or some time further down the road, is immeasurably pivotal. This is a program at a crossroads, destined either for a comeback, or to become a relic of the past we discuss only in historic terms.

THIRD DOWN: The Pitts

Swagger long defined the soul of Miami Hurricanes football, which probably explains Friday’s potentially devastating loss for The U. After all, if Miami’s mystique comes down to its swagger, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi exuding enough of it to fill champagne glasses across South Beach did not bode well for the Canes.

The Open Man has drawn parallels between the chaotic 2007 season and 2017 repeatedly throughout this campaign, so logical dictated that Friday’s Pitt upset was an inevitability. After all, the final-week Panthers upset of West Virginia shook the BCS Championship picture to its core (and played a vital role in the SEC’s national title streak; a Mountaineers win would have snapped the streak before it began).

Pitt’s West Virginia upset is the most memorable, though it’s a program that has had a flair for the dramatic in late-season games over the past decade. The Panthers very nearly spared the nation a brutal Notre Dame beating in the 2013 BCS Championship Game, losing an overtime decision to the Fighting Irish in 2012. Pitt’s 2009 regular-season finale against Cincinnati is one of the most exciting games of the past decade, going down to a 45-44 final in Brian Kelly’s final game with the Bearcats.

And then, of course, Pitt handed national champion Clemson its only loss en route to last season’s College Football Playoff.

These important games so prominently featuring Pitt has to be frustrating for Panthers fans. It’s been almost four decades since Pitt chased a national title itself, yet the program’s closest brush with championships is spoiling them for others. 

FOURTH DOWN: #karma?

About the same time UCF and USF were exchanging haymakers, Arkansas and Missouri went down to the wire in a game without nearly the same stakes. One could argue that Bret Bielema’s job was on the line, but even had the Tigers not banged through a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds, the Head Hog probably wasn’t going to last into 2017.

So, was Bielema’s on-field firing moments after losing to Missouri and dropping to 11-29 in five disappointing seasons at Arkansas a form of hashtag karma?

The Bielema era had its share of PR gaffes, starting that September night in 2013 when referees botched the final seconds in a Wisconsin loss at Arizona State. Jen Bielema’s not-so-cryptic and long-since-deleted tweet declaring the decision #karma set a tone.

And yet, even after an awkward allusion to the death of Ted Agu during the SEC’s petty war with hurry-up offenses; the borderline erotic win over Texas; and jumping on Jen after a Playoff-shaping defeat of Ole Miss, there’s complexity to the dismissal of Bret Bielema.

Media who covered the Razorbacks in Bielema’s tenure lauded the coach’s transparency. His PR gaffes were in part a byproduct of granting access that’s becoming increasingly rare — especially in the SEC, where so many coaches operate in a manner more clandestine than the federal government.

Arkansas also avoided the unseemly off-field scandals that plagued the latter portion of Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee — or his indirect predecessor at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino. 

Bret Bielema simply failed to win at the level for which he was hired.

The Arkansas job is one that current SEC West counterpart Kevin Sumlin could find great success in, presuming reports of his impending dismissal are true. And why wouldn’t they be? Five or six seasons seems to be the shelf life for any head coach in the SEC not named Nick Saban.

Sumlin’s name has been mentioned in association with other openings like UCLA, but Bielema — a three-time Big Ten champion who left Wisconsin with three Top 10 rankings — seems to be the odd man out.