During the coaching carousel that followed the 2015 season, there were two hires made that seemed somewhat out of left field. One was Iowa State luring Matt Campbell from Toledo, and the other was Virginia snagging Bronco Mendenhall from BYU.
In both cases, the question was not really why those coaches were hired — Campbell and Mendenhall were highly regarded — but rather why either would want to tackle such significant rebuilding jobs. For Campbell, his stock was high enough after consecutive nine-win seasons that he surely could have had more attractive offers than Iowa State. And for Mendenhall, who had been BYU’s head coach for 11 seasons, it seemed curious that he would want to move cross-country and start over at a place where it’s never been easy to win.
But once the moves were made, the question then became how long it would take for either coach to make their programs relevant. In both cases, it has come relatively quickly.
BOUNCING BACK: Takeaways from LSU’s win at No. 20 Florida
Campbell secured arguably the biggest upset win in Iowa State history on Saturday, going into Norman with a backup quarterback and shocking No. 3 Oklahoma 38-31. Then moments later, Mendenhall’s Cavaliers wrapped up a 28-21 win against Duke that boosted their record to 4-1.
Both, in their own ways, are remarkable achievements.
Though the Cyclones didn’t necessarily have the wins to show for it (until Saturday), the improvement over the last 1½ seasons has been fairly obvious. Even last season, Iowa State was a 3-9 pest, playing Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State to within one score. And though it’s too early to say they’ve arrived based on this win, the Cyclones are 3-2 with a legitimate shot to get to 6-6, which would be beyond anyone’s wildest dreams two years ago.
Virginia, meanwhile, looked pretty hopeless last year at 2-10 and just 1-7 in the ACC. But obviously Mendenhall was in the process of a major culture change, and it’s paying off now.
Virginia is playing fast, aggressive, Mendenhall-style defense and getting just enough from quarterback Kurt Benkert, who threw three touchdown passes against the Blue Devils. Following a huge win at Boise State a couple weeks ago, it seems fair to say the Cavaliers have turned it around and should make a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
Given how quickly the payoff has come for two historically bad programs that made very smart hires, Iowa State and Virginia are the two biggest winners of the week.
Here are college football’s other winners and losers on Saturday:
The U: Hey, maybe they were due. The Miami Hurricanes are no longer 0-for-the-Jimbo-Fisher-era after an epic 24-20 win against Florida State. Seemingly dead to rights when Florida State freshman quarterback James Blackman threw a 20-yard laser touchdown to Auden Tate with 1:24 remaining to give the Seminoles the lead, Miami went 75 yards in nine plays to win the game. The final play was a beauty.
With 11 seconds left and a timeout, Miami could take one shot to the end zone before lining up for a field goal and overtime. Quarterback Malik Rosier got the ball out quick, made a perfect back shoulder throw to the goal line for Darrell Langham, and he hauled it in, just sneaking the ball over the goal line before his knee went down short. After a lengthy review, the touchdown was upheld and Miami is now 4-0 and no longer on the wrong side of a seven-year losing streak to Florida State.
Team meetings: The word coming out of Baton Rouge all week was about team meetings. There was Ed Orgeron with his coordinators, the coaching staff with athletics director Joe Alleva and one, of course, for players only. Hey, whatever works. LSU put its best effort out there, took a 17-3 lead in the Swamp and held on for a 17-16 win at Florida. It wasn’t pretty, and it doesn’t seem like all of LSU’s problems are solved. Heck, the winning margin was a missed Florida extra point on a touchdown that should have tied it up late in the third quarter. But for a team whose season was on the ropes and a coaching staff that seemed like it was losing control, this was a necessary win and performance — no matter how they got it.
TCU’s Playoff hopes: With Oklahoma’s loss, the Horned Frogs are now the clear frontrunner in the Big 12. Of course, they also had to clear a pretty big hurdle Saturday at home against West Virginia. TCU got it done 31-24 with Kenny Hill leading a 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive and the winning score with 2:53 left. TCU got out-gained 508-406 but the difference was two West Virginia turnovers. This is a very good Gary Patterson team, but it’s far from dominant, which means it will probably have to survive a few more roller coaster games in the Big 12 to come through without a loss.
Georgia’s bandwagon: Seats are getting awfully hard to come by, huh? The Bulldogs keep toying with people, and not needing much out of their passing game to do it. Georgia rushed for an astounding 423 yards against Vanderbilt in a 45-14 win, with the super combo of Sony Michel (150) and NIck Chubb (138) doing most of the work. At 6-0, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much drama for Georgia until at least Oct. 28 against Florida and then Nov. 11 at Auburn. As of now, though, the Bulldogs look like a legitimate College Football Playoff threat. Oh, and by the way, Notre Dame continuing to win only helps their cause.
Clemson’s quarterback depth: With the game well in hand, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant appeared to sprain his left ankle and couldn’t return, allowing backups Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson to get some much-needed experience. Johnson, a former five-star recruit, went 5-for-5 for 42 yards and a touchdown as Clemson finished off a routine 28-14 victory. Though the injury didn’t seem too serious, that’s good news for the Tigers in case Bryant can’t play next week at Syracuse and perhaps further down the road. “If for some reason Kelly can’t play, we can win with those guys,” coach Dabo Swinney told reporters.
Tulane: It’s still a mystery how Power Five schools overlooked Willie Fritz a couple of years ago after he went 17-7 in two years at Georgia Southern, which moved up from FCS to FBS and immediately won big. But the Power Five’s loss was Tulane’s gain. Though they’re still a bit under the radar, the Green Wave moved to 3-2 with a 62-28 domination of Tulsa and are becoming an intriguing team in the AAC. Tulane already beat Army and nearly got Navy this year (losing 23-21), but blowing out Tulsa is real validation for how much improvement Fritz has made after going 4-8 last season.
Fritz is a master at adapting his offense to his personnel, and he rarely gets out-coached. Tulane may not have the most talented roster, but they’ll be a pest going forward in their division for the likes of Houston, Memphis and SMU.
Two-way players: One big footnote from the Iowa State upset at Oklahoma is the ironman performance of Joel Lanning, who had eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in his regular role as a starting linebacker. He was 2-for-3 passing the ball on offense and carried nine times for 35 yards in his old role as a quarterback. Lanning, who started much of last season at quarterback but switched to defense this year, was very much needed because starter Jacob Park took a leave of absence from the team due to personal reasons.
Though Kyle Kempt was the Cyclones’ primary quarterback on Saturday, Lanning played 13 snaps on offense, 57 on defense and eight on special teams to cap off a truly memorable day.
Oklahoma’s defense: Maybe the Baylor game was a tell. Two Saturdays ago, the Sooners gave up 41 points to a winless Baylor team, and it was largely written off as disinterest. But clearly there was something else going on, as Oklahoma struggled again on that side of the ball against the Cyclones, giving up 368 passing yards (to a pair of backup quarterbacks) and 81 on the ground. It’s looking more and more like the win at Ohio State — not the Baylor game — was the fluke for Mike Stoops’ defense.
Bret Bielema’s future: It’s hard to envision how bad it would have to get for Arkansas to pay a $15.5 million buyout to get rid of its coach. But this is kind of what it would look like. The Hogs were a slight betting favorite at South Carolina but got absolutely hammered 48-22. Tied late in the first half, Arkansas gave up a touchdown drive in the final seconds, then South Carolina opened the second half with consecutive defensive touchdowns to put the game away. It was just a brutal all-around performance, and now Arkansas is 2-3 with Alabama (on the road) and Auburn coming up in consecutive weeks. That will put Arkansas in a huge hole before things get easier, but the atmosphere around Bielema is going to be toxic with a fan base that wants change.
The Big Ten: A lot of things are going to happen between now and the first weekend in December, but once again the Ohio State-Oklahoma result from early in the season could be a fulcrum that decides Playoff bids. It might give Oklahoma a mulligan if the Sooners can get their act together, which might hurt the Big Ten in a head-to-head comparison if Ohio State ends up as the conference champ. Conversely, if Oklahoma doesn’t win the Big 12, that won’t look like a good loss for the Big Ten.
Ole Miss: In two SEC games, the Rebels (or are they now the Landsharks?) have been outscored 110-26, albeit by Alabama and Auburn. Though Ole Miss scored a couple of garbage-time touchdowns against Auburn in the fourth quarter after falling behind 41-10, it’s just very clear the team Hugh Freeze left behind just isn’t that talented. Though there are some very good players in spots — quarterback Shea Patterson, receiver A.J. Brown, left tackle Greg Little, etc. — it’s a top-heavy roster that is really deficient in the middle and at the bottom. The next coach will have a monster rebuilding job on his hands.
Pittsburgh: Since joining the Big East in 1991, Pitt has finished winless in its conference once, in 1995 during a miserable 2-9 season. The Panthers are very much in danger of doing it again. Losing at Syracuse 27-24 leaves them 0-2 in the ACC (2-4 overall), and once again the quarterback position is a big problem. Max Browne completed 15-for-22 but for only 161 yards, while backup Ben Dinucci wasn’t particularly effective. Pitt is going to be a big underdog in most of its remaining games, though North Carolina on Nov. 9 and at Duke on Oct. 21 would be potential opportunities to get an ACC win. For now, though, it’s not looking great.
Michigan: The Wolverines suffered a sloppy 14-10 loss at home to Michigan State that included penalties and five turnovers (QB John O’Korn threw three interceptions in the second half). The offense was stagnant. And Jim Harbaugh is now 1-2 against the Spartans.