The Top Whatever: "Thanks for bringing back B1G football"

The Top Whatever is a weekly ranking of only the things that absolutely must be ranked.

1. The Big Ten, by Jason

"Good game Nebraska. Thanks for bringing back B1G football."

Thus spake Illinois’ athletic department Twitter account after the Illini thundered into Lincoln and dropped the Huskers to 1-3 in a Big Ten season that might not be happening if not for the vocal efforts of those same Huskers.

Recall a few months ago, when the list of schools banging the most pots and pans in the name of de-canceling B1G football was something like Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan.

Now just imagine how relatively flat this “season” would be without the Big Ten’s PEAKS AND VALLEYS. What would be the football-specific stories of national interest? Anything new? An AAC team probably not making the Playoff? Everyone pretending they’d respect BYU if the Cougars beat a team from the Pac-12, a conference nobody respects? There’s Notre Dame in the ACC, I guess. That’s new.

But as of right now, the B1G is as entertaining as the rest of college football combined.

Nebraska is the dog that caught the car, Penn State is making history (already the first top-10 team to go 0-5, and now an underdog in game six), and all of Michigan’s anxieties are building toward an incredible crescendo, yes, but that’s just the mean stuff.

There’s happy stuff too! Indiana! Who doesn’t love America’s Hoosiers? The scrappy gritty fighter-buddies found themselves in a familiar situation, down by 28 to Ohio State, but scraped together enough nickels to pull within a last-minute drive of tying it. Rutgers! The Knights are, as Richard notes each week, alarmingly competent, having given all five opponents a bit more than they’d bargained for. Northwestern?? Technically halfway to the national title game despite ranking #120 in yards per play?? Sure!

No other conference has given us such novel extremes. Oh, an Alabama-Florida SEC Championship, wow, haven’t seen exactly that twice in the last five years. Ah, Clemson’s probably going to the Playoff while Dabo gripes about something dumb, how unprecedented. Ooh, the Big 12 is out and the Pac-12 might’ve never been in, what freshness.

No, the Big Ten is hogging the spotlight by flipping most of its traditional order upside down for the holidays. Only Ohio State remains immune to this Saturnalia upheaval, and even that is actually good — we need this team in the title chase, if for no other reason than to avoid hearing “ugh, they never had to face Justin Fields” about whichever team wins whatever we’re doing at the end of this dumb season.

I don’t know why we’re playing football this year (money), and I don’t know why the Big Ten decided to join in (money, huge/humble heaps of it, grain silos buckling from the weight of all that extremely scholarly money). But if you insist on playing football in a year that does not need football, you might as well make it this backward.

So thank you.

PREVIOUS: 14 Big Ten universities, ranked by annoyance

2. Kentucky’s long snapper’s forearms, by Alex

Here is where a field goal try against Alabama began: 

And here is where it ended. 

You may view the attempt in its entirety if you want, but the key thing is the tremendous strength required to fire the ball that far past the holder. If you focus on Kentucky losing three points and almost a half-field of field position, you are no fun.

3. Rutgers, by Richard

I was not born in New York City, but I have been raised by it the last few years. I remember taking the train home after that 2016 game, when millions of New Yorkers wandered around in a daze, wondering how our Scarlet Knights could get shellacked this hard. 

Saturday, as Rutgers fought with all their might, I head a socially distant city come together. From the lawns of Central Park to the beaches of Coney Island, the city swelled as one to salute New York City’s Big Ten Team. This is the future Jim Delany promised us a decade ago: Man, woman, and child joining in a throng to salute our squad. I only wish I could be at the airport to welcome our boys home from New Jersey.  

Hail to the losers valiant, hail to the conquered heroes, hail, hail to Rutgers, even though they lost in triple overtime to Michigan. 

Rutgers is competent, and Michigan is not.

4. Nick Saban sounds very happy, by Spencer 

Alabama passed a couple of big milestones. Najee Harris became the first player in Alabama history to score 16 TDs in seven games. Devonta Smith caught his 32nd and 33rd touchdowns of his career, becoming the scoringest receiver in the history of the SEC. The Tide beat Kentucky 63-3 despite Mac Jones only throwing for 230 yards. 

In every aspect, Alabama checked the boxes on another weekend’s demolition. 

Yet here is Nick Saban, the grand architect himself, blazing through the obligatory postgame coaches show. Note the “smile,” the rictus Saban plasters across his face to hide how little he wants to be there, doing anything but making Alabama a more lethal football beast. Enjoy the sudden rush of jargon flowing from his mouth, as he stoops to using the phrase “Cover 3 Buzz,” but no lower to explain what it means. 

Marvel at the coach walking the viewer through an outstanding play by the Alabama defense ... while clearly using it to talk to his players about how they screwed something up. There are obsessives, and then there are obsessives. Then there is Saban, the guy who says “a great play for our defense” with his mouth while his whole body is saying: “Earlier we screwed up what is obviously a simple four-wide shift to trips Cover 1 to Cover 3 pattern match.” 

This is what you don’t have, and never will, as long as someone not named Nick Saban coaches your football team.


5. Nerds, by Richard 

As LSU posterized Clemson in the most recent national championship game, I was drinking free booze with some college football nerds (and I use that term endearingly).  The company hosting this shindig was Championship Analytics. I was thumbing through a fat binder of color-coded graphs that is the next evolution of “the card,” the thing that tells teams when to go for two. Here’s a sample: 

So when Cincinnati, up three and on the doorstep of UCF’s goal line, chose not to cross the threshold, I had an inkling.

Then the sideline analyst referenced “a binder,” and I wondered.

Then they showed the binder, and I knew. 

Analytics aren’t the future; they are the present. And while I’m not 100% sure this is Championship Analytics’ work specifically, it’s certainly a harbinger of a more numbers-driven approach to football. And if hard-nosed Luke Fickell is letting the nerds inform his coaching, it shows analytics can be massaged into a football program in a way that isn’t obtrusive, but is informative. 

To be clear: this decision by the Bearcats cost me money. I needed Cincinnati to have precisely one more point. It was also quite funny, considering that last week the Bearcats won by too much against ECU with a late fake punt. This time, they didn’t win by enough (for my tastes). 

So part of me cheers the analytics revolution. But only part of me.

6. Tulsa, by Alex

The Golden Hurricane moved to 5-1 when they hit a game-tying Hail Mary on Tulane at the buzzer, then won in overtime. 

Tulsa is not only good, but a good story. This was their third thrilling comeback of the year, as they’d overcome big deficits against ranked UCF and SMU teams. There might not be a more surprising turnaround right now. Philip Montgomery went 10-3 in 2016 and then failed to win more than four games in any of the next three years. That he didn’t get fired was a bit of a surprise, and that his team now looks this good is a big one. 

A bonus: Tulsa doesn’t have to play Cincinnati until December 12. If they play well between now and then, there’s a chance they get the Bearcats back-to-back weeks, with the latter being the AAC Championship.

7. Auburn’s convoys, by Alex 

The greatest play in college football history was a sublime effort by Chris Davis, but it was also a triumph for Auburn’s other 10 guys, who got going immediately to escort him to the end zone. The Tigers were running to the left sideline before Davis even caught the ball, and by the time he got a head of steam, he had a moving wall of blue jerseys: 

See the same thing on a 100-yard INT return six years later: 

And see the same thing on Smoke Monday’s 100-yard pick six against Tennessee on Saturday, when the Vols were driving down a field goal in the third quarter: 

Auburn isn’t the only team that’s good at this. I probably just notice them more because they have a lot of long returns in games I’m watching. But it’s also not an accident, as noted to me by Justin Ferguson of the Auburn Observer: 

Gus Malzahn will win a game a year by emphasizing something that isn’t in the top 50 things a coach might have on his mind leading up to a game. Sometimes it’s a weird substitution gambit designed to trick Nick Saban. Sometimes it’s just putting an emphasis on running rapidly in the other direction and blocking anyone who comes near you. 

8. Colorful and enthusiastic flailing, by Spencer

He innovated. And in a year when so much has been asked of everyone, and so little help given in return, I just want to say that Akron’s QB freestyling this badly and creatively on a single play — fumble-passing to himself, nearly completing it — is a blessing and an achievement. I support you in your 2020-ness, dude. I support all of our colorful and enthusiastic flailing.

No matter what happens, we’re having fun seven days a week in our Discord, posting reasoned analysis at Shutdown Fullcast and dumb Wikipedia jokes at Split Zone Duo (oh, maybe I have those backward), and wishing you a safe and happy holiday season.

9. The radio, by Jason

A big Saturday for the auditory arts!

At least once a year, a late-night West Coast game just breaks, just straight up breaks, whether it’s an animal loose on the field, all of San Diego State’s lights going out, Arizona and UCLA brawling because someone saw a fake ref, or … all the USC-Utah cameras deciding not to be cameras.

10. Playoff prognosticatin’ in a year such as this, by Jason

Oh right, Playoff rankings are coming on Tuesday. After doing eight years of weekly bowl projections and six years of weekly stuff on the Playoff race, it’s been interesting to just sort of ignore the whole thing all year. So let’s catch back up!

First, here’s the top 10 of the Massey Composite, a combo of dozens of rankings. I’ve found the MC to be a useful rough predictor of Playoff rankings:

  1. Alabama

  2. Clemson

  3. Notre Dame (yep, the computers still prefer Clemson, though the CFP committee should have the Irish top-two for now)

  4. Ohio State

  5. Cincinnati (two spots higher than in the AP Poll)

  6. BYU (likewise)

  7. Florida

  8. Northwestern (three spots higher)

  9. Oregon

  10. Texas A&M (five spots lower)

Based on that, we could guess the Aggies will be madder than anybody else about Tuesday night’s rankings reveal, though they’ll be ahead of Florida for now. Meanwhile, the CFP rankings’ biggest flaw has been underrating teams from outside the Power 5, so I’d be surprised if Cincy/BYU rank this close to the top four already. The CFP doesn’t usually appear to take cues from the AP, but it could start pretty close.

So how solid is that top four? Could Cincy or BYU really crash the party? 

Fans of the lil guys should root for Bama to win out (since a Florida SEC title could mean Florida and Bama making the Playoff) and for the ACC Championship to either be a blowout or a Notre Dame win (if Clemson beats Notre Dame by a little, the 11-1 Irish could take a spot). If we assume the Big Ten gets the third spot, it could come down to BYU, Cincy, or a 7-0 Pac-12 champ. 

However, fans of chaos should root for the opposite. If Clemson, Florida, and Notre Dame are all in, the battle for #4 could come down to this, which farfetchedly assumes no other upsets along the way:

  • 9-1 SEC West champ Alabama (best win: top-10 A&M)

  • 8-0 Big Ten champ Ohio State (best win: top-10 Northwestern)

  • 12-0 AAC champ Cincinnati (best win: like six top-60 teams)

  • 10-0 BYU (best win: top-25 Boise State)

  • 7-0 Pac-12 champ Oregon (best win: top-20 USC)

  • 8-1 Texas A&M (best win: top-10 Florida)

In this scenario and most others, I’m not convinced division runner-up A&M would have a real argument. Even if Florida beats Bama, we might think the Aggies’ win over Florida thus merits a CFP spot, but how could we move A&M ahead of Bama?

It’d also be hard to make a Pac-12 team’s case over Bama or Ohio State. Oregon only gets to make seven statements before Selection Sunday, and the first three weren’t all that special.

I also think BYU needs some major mayhem, and/or some scheduling help beyond just this Washington thing. The committee says it doesn’t penalize independents for not winning conferences, but it says conference titles count as tiebreakers between otherwise similar teams. Another tiebreaker: Schedule strength. That’s likely two big advantages for all of these teams (including Cincinnati) over BYU.

So is Cincy’s schedule depth a good enough argument, especially with a little help and two more top-30ish opponents still to go? It seems possible, but let’s see what Tuesday reveals.

For now, let’s say everybody mostly wins out (lol) and Notre Dame plays Clemson within a touchdown:

  • Rose semifinal: #2 Clemson vs. #3 Ohio State

  • Sugar semifinal: #1 Alabama vs. #4 Notre Dame 

  • Cotton: G5 autobid Cincinnati vs. at-large Northwestern

  • Fiesta: at-large BYU vs. Pac-12 champ Oregon/USC/whoever

  • Orange: ACC autobid Miami vs. Big Ten/SEC autobid Texas A&M

  • Peach: at-large Florida vs. Big 12 champ Iowa State/Oklahoma/whoever

BYU and Northwestern could be the bubble teams; somebody like Georgia, Indiana, or Wisconsin could take those spots. Remember the committee will try to make one or two of those at-large games as Good For Television as possible, so a non-Playoff Cincy could have a tough time landing a big-brand opponent.

And lastly, I don’t know why this stray bullet point is here, and Substack will not let me delete it:

11. History, by Richard 

Tennessee has been playing football since 1891. Never have they lost five straight games by double digits. I just wanted to take a few sentences to point that out. 

Also this, just in case you were curious. The emphasis is mine: 

“[Jeremy] Pruitt, thanks to his recent extension, is under contract until Jan. 31, 2026. That's five more seasons. If Tennessee fired him on, say, Dec. 1, it would owe Pruitt a buyout of $12.88 million.”

12. “Bedlam,” by Alex

The silliest rivalry name is not the Red Beans and Rice Bowl (McNeese-Central Arkansas), the Bayou Bucket Classic (Houston-Rice), the Battle for the Milk Can (Boise State-Fresno State), the old Hickory Stick Game (Northwest Missouri State-Truman State), or any of dozens of other intentionally silly names.

No, the silliest rivalry name is an accident: “Bedlam” for Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State, a series that is normally anything but Bedlam. To the contrary, this one is among the most predictable major rivalries. Oklahoma’s record against its much littler brother is now 90-18-7, a win rate of more than 80%.

It’s not bedlam at all. There is not even a clear origin story that led to this ultra-misleading misnomer, which begs the question of why we still call this “Bedlam” at all. 

Yet, anything can happen in Bedlam, a few people still insist year after year. Indeed it can. Oklahoma can win by a small amount, a medium amount, or a large amount. This year, Oklahoma chose a large amount.

Last: The bad Purdue call, by Spencer

Football gives us no options. If a non-reviewable call goes bad, there is no way to remedy it. Nothing overturns a loss resulting from a bad call, and nothing will make anyone feel better, ever. A bad call that actually matters is a giant, angry zit on the forehead that will not pop or shrink. Everyone can see it forever. 

There is no way to complain about it without getting fined or suspended. Jeff Brohm -— who had to watch as a ref called a ghost of a pass interference on a game-winning TD, negating the score and setting up the game-killing interception on the next play — had about 30 seconds to rain holy profane death on the head ref. After the game, he couldn’t say what he really thought. He can’t say the truth about the play on Monday during his weekly press conference, or any time after that, until he leaves the Big Ten. 

At which point — somewhere, decades down the road, when everyone has passed the anger of the moment — I hope an older, slower Brohm finds this referee, waits until the dead of night, and then poops on his doorstep. Because he’s owed that, at least.  

Even more last: The poisonous conversation around the Clemson-FSU cancelation, by Alex

The decision not to play was FSU’s. ESPN reported a Clemson player had shown COVID-19 symptoms over the course of the week, but received negative test results. Then, after he flew with his teammates to Tallahassee, he got a positive test result. At this point, there’s no way to know if he shared the virus with his teammates.

Clemson wanted to play. The ACC appeared to be fine either way, saying the schools’ medical staffs “were unable to mutually agree.” 

All of the following can be true at the same time: 

  • Clemson and FSU agreed to follow the ACC’s COVID protocols. It doesn’t appear Clemson violated them. Games have gone on all season after any number of positive cases. In fact, teams have chugged forward after dozens of players have been exposed or tested positive. 

  • FSU was within its rights to be uncomfortable facing a roster that might have had both recent and prolonged exposure. In 2020, people back out of things all the time, even if they’ve agreed to participate, and there’s not much to do in those cases other than understand. 

  • FSU might have been happy to avoid a sure ass-whipping from a superior opponent. As a general policy, I try not to dwell on why Florida State University does the things it does, but let’s pretend the Noles really wanted to duck Clemson, and COVID offered a pretext. In that vein, your sister might use COVID as an excuse to not see your aunt at Thanksgiving. That doesn’t mean she’s therefore wrong to skip a family gathering that could become a superspreader event. Sometimes, excuses happen to lead to healthy decisions. 

  • It feels silly to point out, but the canceled game wasn’t crucial. Of course, every game is meaningful to players, coaches, and fans, just as millions of canceled events this year have been meaningful to people all over the world. All of it hurts, but football teams are not special. Clemson missing out on a 50-point blowout of FSU will not be decisive. 

  • More than 250,000 Americans have died. The effects of Thanksgiving and Christmas travel will not make things any easier on people. If you’re a public figure whose first instinct right now is to insinuate weakness on the part of people exercising extreme caution – even if you think that’s just an excuse! – you should simply not say anything.