To know college football is to know a sport which constantly baffles, amazes and agitates.
College football evades easy categorization. It is a kingdom of inconvenient truths and the province of quickly-shifting sands. Alabama conquers all, UCLA struggles… and in between, almost nothing stands on solid ground. A few annual patterns can be set to the clock, counted on with great regularity, but most of this sport is dominated by the churn and upheaval belonging to a theater of competition in which 19- and 20-year-old athletes are the centers of attention.
Week 8 might not have been that dramatically different from the previous seven weeks of the 2016 college football season, but it felt that after the end of the season’s first half (there are 14 full weeks, so Week 8 began the back end), many teams underwent an identity shift, for better or worse.
It is a constant task — and struggle — to evaluate the quality of a college football team over the course of the season. Many mysteries are still waiting to be solved, but Week 8 appeared to achieve more than the preceding weeks in terms of unmasking teams for what they are… and no longer used to be.
In the cover photo for this story (located at the top of this page), you’ll see Temple gallop all over South Florida, a “running of the Bulls,” one could say.
Remember Week 1? Temple got whacked at home by Army, and Navy lost starting quarterback Tago Smith with an injury. It was easy to think Army was going to have the upper hand against Navy in its bid to snap a 14-game losing streak in the series, and it was just as easy to think that Temple and head coach Matt Rhule enjoyed a uniquely prosperous 2015 season, highly unlikely to be replicated.
It was also easy to think that Houston (after its Week 1 blitz of Oklahoma) and South Florida (which looked very solid, though not necessarily impregnable on defense) would easily stroll to division championships in the AAC.
Week 8 blew up all four of those notions.
Army looked terrible in a lopsided home loss to North Texas which has greatly jeopardized the Black Knights’ bowl chances. Navy has completely turned around its season under backup quarterback Will Worth. Temple controls its fate in the AAC East, with Rhule ruling the roost for the hootin’ and hollerin’ Owls. Houston is on life support in the AAC race and a dead duck in the College Football Playoff sweepstakes. There might be a one-percent chance (a remarkable string of occurrences) of Houston slipping into the New Year’s Six picture, but essentially, the Cougars are out of aspirations before November has even greeted the calendar. South Florida needs help to win the AAC East, but even if the Bulls do rebound, they have gone from “a team which ran into a hot Florida State offense” to “a flawed and inconsistent group which will have to work very hard to exceed last year’s regular season win total (8).”
Throw in this note: Air Force looked like a Group of Five New Year’s Six contender in early October. The Falcons have now lost three straight games.
That’s JUST the AAC and the service academies. One league and one trio of academy teams have illustrated just how quickly college football changes, and on a broader level, how different the season looks at the end of October compared to the end of September.
Precisely because these changes in identity occur, teams will either celebrate or lament the timing of their victories.
Consider Washington. If the Huskies (who have a LOT of work to do and are a mystery team more than a proven team at this point) do get into the playoff conversation in early December, they might ironically rue the steep declines of Stanford and Oregon. They might wish the Cardinal and Ducks were far better than they currently are. There might not be enough heft on UW’s resume in a tight playoff chase with, say, West Virginia. The Mountaineers looked shaky against Kansas State and BYU. They do not look shaky anymore. Yes, the Big 12 is a mystery, and on balance, WVU’s biggest proving grounds (Oklahoma and Baylor) lie ahead, but it’s clearly becoming harder to dismiss the Mountaineers’ quality.
Consider Clemson as a team loving life right now. The Tigers have to be euphoric about Auburn’s meteoric rise over the past month, another October transformation. Clemson might be an inconsistent team, one that was lucky to escape North Carolina State, but Clemson certainly caught Auburn (on the road) at the right time, before Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee fixed their offense.
Critics will say — correctly — that Auburn was not the same team when Clemson beat it. Yet, what are voters and evaluators supposed to do with that information? Clemson’s win over Auburn will probably look very good at the end of the season. If Washington is unlucky for playing Stanford and Oregon in 2016 and Clemson is lucky for getting Auburn in Week 1 instead of Week 9, them’s the breaks, folks. Resume evaluations can’t be stretched in too many directions.
If the teams on your schedule happen to be great (or awful) when you least expected it, that’s the volatility of sports at work. It’s the confounding and crackling unpredictability which makes college football so attractive. This is how it has always been, and this is how it will always be.
What’s the value of a college football win? The one safe answer: It sure beats losing.
The rest is constantly subject to change, as Week 8 powerfully illustrated.