College football’s playoff race is in full swing and that’s wonderful. There’s nothing better than the unique brand of freneticism associated with these final weeks of the regular season. However, there is one negative consequence: we only focus on the top-10 teams when there are so many other things worth talking about.
There’s no room for any of college football’s smaller storylines at the table because we’re so focused on Alabama, Oklahoma, Miami, and the other big programs. This list is an attempt to change that. Here are 14 underappreciated storylines that should get your attention down the home stretch.
UAB reaching bowl eligibility after coming back from the dead
The Blazers weren’t left for dead. They were literally dead. There was no football played at the University of Alabama-Birmingham for the past two seasons. The program was shut down. And even though a 2017 return was announced fairly soon after, the two-year hiatus didn’t exactly help recruiting, or keep players from transferring. No matter, head coach Bill Clark has the Blazers at 7-3, vying for the Conference-USA West title.
That’s unlikely given UAB lost to North Texas in a 46-43 shootout earlier this year, however, the Blazers are going bowling for only the second time in school history. More so, they have a not-insignificant chance of knocking off Florida this week. That would provide a signature moment for what should be considered one of the best stories in sports this year.
Bronco Mendenhall taking Virginia to a bowl game after a 2-10 2016
The ‘Hoos were one of the most irrelevant Power 5 football programs not just in 2016 but for practically the entire decade prior. From 2006 to 2016, Virginia had more head coaches (three) than bowl appearances (two). And they probably held onto Mike London for two years too long to boot. Mendenhall didn’t exactly inspire in his first season in Charlottesville — a 2-10 record capped off by a 52-10 blowout at rival Virginia Tech.
This year, however, things have changed. The Cavaliers are 6-4 — bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 — with quality wins at Boise State and against Georgia Tech. Their schedule to close out the year isn’t exactly favorable — they go to Miami this week before the Hokies come to town in Week 13 — but even a 6-6 finish would mark an undeniable improvement.
Central Florida casually running the table
Central Florida is good. Not G5 good, but just straight-up good. Not only are the Knights 9-0, they’ve blown most of their opponents out of the building. UCF crushed Memphis — a team that’s been in and out of the top-25 — to the tune of 40-13. They went to College Park and crushed Maryland, a Power Five team (albeit not a good one).
Outside of games at Navy and SMU, the Knights have blown out every team they’ve faced. They rank fifth in S&P+ and seventh in FEI. If Ohio State and Auburn — two teams with two losses — get playoff arguments, so should UCF. Not to say the Knights should make it over them, but they should be raising just as much hell over not getting in as any Power Five program.
The Big 12 picking up the mantle as college football’s best conference
Let’s take a look at the Power Five conferences: the ACC is Clemson, Miami, a decent enough NC State, and 11 teams that can only hope to compete with those three. The Big Ten West is the weakest division in the Power Five and Ohio State — the best team in the Big Ten East — made Iowa look like an offensive powerhouse two weeks ago. No Pac-12 team is even in the playoff conversation right now. The SEC is top heavy, has already fired two coaches (not counting Hugh Freeze), and its Eastern Division gives the Big Ten West a run for its money.
Then there’s the Big 12. Not only is it the most entertaining conference with offense for days, it’s the best from top to bottom. Eight of its 10 teams have been ranked at some point this year. There’s a good chance the conference cannibalizes itself out of a playoff spot, not because they’re bad, but because anybody can beat anybody. If Kansas State, Texas, and Texas Tech can each win one of their final two games, the Big 12 will send eight teams bowling. Step aside, SEC. There’s a new king in town.
Michigan State’s insta-recovery
Nobody thought the Spartans would get so much better so fast. Mark Dantonio’s squad was 3-9 last year with an offense that couldn’t move on an airport walkway and no solution in sight. But like clockwork, Dantonio has piloted Michigan State to a 7-3 record that’s likely to become 9-3 with Maryland and Rutgers still on the schedule.
The offense hasn’t been much better — the Spartans are 103rd in S&P+ and quarterback Brian Lewerke is averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt — but Michigan State’s defense magicked itself into being a force. The Spartans shut down James Franklin’s idea of an offense to kill Penn State’s playoff hopes. They rank seventh in run defense S&P+ despite having lost Malik McDowell to the NFL. This is just the latest proof that Dantonio is one of the best coaches in the country. We’d do well to remember that in the future.
Lane Kiffin, maybe not so bad after all?
Don’t look now, but Florida Atlantic is 7-3 and undefeated in Conference-USA play. Despite struggling out of the gate with a 1-3 start, Kiffin’s Owls have won six in a row and look to be in pretty good shape to take home a conference title. Moreover, the offense is top-10 in S&P+, a direct indicator that Kiffin’s doing something right. For reference, FAU was 75th in offensive S&P+ under Charlie Partridge last season. When Kiffin inevitably wades into some trouble off the field and puts himself in jeopardy yet again, we’ll wonder why any school will bother associating with him. This is why.
Army is 8-2!!
Everybody will always root for Army — and the rest of our service academies — and with good reason. For so long, however, the Black Knights were lovable losers. Since 1991 when Bob Sutton was hired as head coach, Army has had just three winning seasons, the latest of which was 2016. This year will be the fourth, as Jeff Monken has the Black Knights at 8-2. It’s also worth noting that one of those losses was to Ohio State, which is more than excusable. After beating Navy for the first time since 2001 last season, Army may come into the storied rivalry matchup as favorites this year.
The Great Fresno State Renaissance
Jeff Tedford has engineered a mindblowing turnaround in his first year on the job. Fresno was 1-11 last year, its only win coming against FCS Sacramento State. Under Tedford, they’re 7-3, leading the Mountain West’s West Divison with two games to go. It’s worth noting that their upcoming opponents — Boise State and Wyoming — are two of the best teams in the conference. Even if Fresno loses to both, however, they’ll still be bowling a year after going winless in the Power Five. That’s an unmitigated success.
Lamar Jackson might deserve the Heisman
Jackson has almost no chance of winning a second straight Heisman Trophy, but it’s pretty tough to argue with his numbers. There are still two weeks to go, but Jaclson has 3,003 passing yards — on pace to beat his 2016 mark of 3,543. He’s averaging nearly the same yardage per pass attempt and has seven games of 100 rushing yards or more.
Saquon Barkley — our favorite for the Doak Walker Award — has three. Baker Mayfield has better numbers as a passer, but once you weigh Jackson’s rushing ability and the fact that his teammates would struggle to win a game without him, it’s tough to deny the junior has an impressive case. Mayfield will win the award and that’s fine. He’s had a wonderful year that deserves to be recognized. But Jackson’s got one good argument to make.
Texas is on the right track
College football Twitter loves to make fun of the Longhorns so much that nobody’s realized Texas is doing some things right. They’re only 5-5, and with games at West Virginia and against Texas Tech coming up, the Longhorns aren’t guaranteed a bowl game. They suffered a humiliating loss to Maryland in the season-opener and dropped heartbreakers to USC, Oklahoma State, and rival Oklahoma. But let’s get some context here: this is Tom Herman’s first year in Austin, which means this is still Charlie Strong’s team in terms of the players on the field.
Texas also lost its best offensive player, D’Onta Foreman, to the NFL. Moreover, it plays in an extremely tough conference and scheduled USC on the road. With all of that going against them, the Longhorns have a plus-80 point differential and a 68.1 percent chance of going bowling for the first time since 2014 by Football Study Hall’s numbers. If Texas really is on its way back, this is what the start of that journey looks like.
A two-loss team is almost definitely making the playoff
This is the only portion of this list where we’re going to talk about the playoff, because a two-loss team is going to make it and nobody’s talking about it. Right now, there’s just two stone-cold, make-it-no-matter-what locks: the winner of Miami-Clemson and Alabama. Assuming Oklahoma wins out (which is no guarantee), they’ll make it as well. Let’s consider the rest of the field: Wisconsin is the only undefeated team left, but nobody expects them to win the Big Ten. Ohio State should beat them (handily) and it’s unlikely Illinois or Michigan give the Buckeyes a ton of trouble over the next couple weeks either.
If that happens, Auburn is the only team that could make it over the Buckeyes. Clemson and Miami are both in the top-four right now, but the loser of that matchup is out. Suddenly, the only three teams left are Auburn, Ohio State, and Georgia. Unless you think Jake Fromm is going to lead the Dawgs to an SEC title game win over Alabama, one of those two-loss teams is getting in.
Matt Campbell is the next big thing
There are no shortage of great coaches doing great things this season, some of which we’ve highlighted on this list. None of them are more impressive than Campbell. In just his second year in Ames, Campbell has turned the Cyclones into a powerhouse. Yes, Iowa State is 6-4, but that comes with the context that (a) two of their losses were before Kyle Kempt was installed at quarterback and (b) the Cyclones will be favored in each of their last two games.
It’s also worth noting that three of their four losses were by one score. Iowa State has wins over Oklahoma and TCU — the conference’s two best teams — and came within a stone’s throw of upsetting Oklahoma State. Expect Campbell’s name to be thrown into the mix for every major job that opens up this offseason.
Suffice it to say the season did not start out well for the Tigers. A loss at home to Troy will do that to you. But since then, LSU has won four of five, including a 20-point comeback against Auburn. The only loss of those five games was at Alabama and it’s unlikely the Tigers drop either of their next two: at Tennessee and against Texas A&M. Barring disaster, LSU is going to make a decent bowl, Ed Orgeron is keeping his job, and there’s going to be some buzz around the Tigers next year.
Since 1969, the Cornhuskers have missed a bowl game just twice. Unless they pull off two straight upsets at Penn State and against Iowa, this year will make it three. Even more alarming: All three bowl misses will have come in the last 15 years. Though head coach Mike Riley will remain in place until the end of the year, his eventual firing seems like a formality with Bill Moos installed as the new Athletic Director.
This story isn’t just about this season — 2017 is the culmination is a 20-year decline that’s taken place since Nebraska split the 1997 National Championship in Tom Osborne’s last year on the sidelines. Since then, the Cornhuskers have made just three New Year’s Six bowls, the last coming in 2006. The simple fact of the matter might be that Nebraska isn’t a blue-blood program anymore.