Winners and losers from college football’s first half

David Kenyon
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Now that a majority of college football programs have reached the six-game mark, the outlook of every team is starting to become clear.

While traditional powers Alabama and Ohio State remain thriving programs, a few brand-name schools are steadily recapturing a place in the nation’s consciousness. However, plenty of expectations have gone unmet, too.

Three of the biggest coach hires are searching for positive results, and several respected teams from this offseason keep falling short on game day.

December is merely a blip on the horizon, and plenty will change by then. But the midpoint of the regular season has brought an apparent group of winners and losers.

Winner: Alabama Crimson Tide

It’s unfair how well Tua Tagovailoa is playing. Look away, Nick Saban, because we’re here to provide a huge dose of rat poison. As the Crimson Tide have cruised to a 6-0 record with a 22-point win over Texas A&M being the closest margin of victory, Tagovailoa hasn’t thrown a pass in any fourth quarter. Not a single one. The Heisman Trophy favorite boasts a 75.2 completion percentage with 18 touchdowns — plus two on the ground — and zero interceptions. Sure, three ranked teams are still on the schedule, but Alabama is even scarier than usual because of Tagovailoa.

Loser: Michigan State Spartans

Competing in the same Big Ten division as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State is tough. Unfortunately for the Spartans, however, they’ve already dropped two games and are just now arriving at that portion of the schedule. Michigan State lost its opening contest of both September and October, falling to Arizona State and Northwestern, respectively. Dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke has struggled, and the secondary has been anything but a No Fly Zone. Mark Dantonio’s teams are usually good for an upset, but a four-loss campaign now appears likely.

Winner: Texas Longhorns

Yes, you’re allowed to get excited about the Longhorns. Or annoyed. Whichever one suits your rooting interests, because Texas is closer to “back” than it’s been in a half-decade. Though the season-opening loss to Maryland is a blemish, Texas has smacked three teams ranked at the time of the matchup. The Longhorns smacked USC, surged late against TCU and edged rival Oklahoma. At 3-0 in Big 12 action, 5-1 Texas has solidified itself as a conference championship threat. Hold off on national title expectations, but the Longhorns are getting there.

Loser: Auburn Tigers

On the bright side, 4-2 isn’t a terrible record on paper. Auburn isn’t rapidly sinking into mediocrity. However, the way in which Gus Malzahn’s team has lost twice is highly concerning. The run-based offense ranks 82nd nationally in yards per carry, and that number plummets to 116th when only FBS opponents are considered. Jarrett Stidham’s lack of development and continued ball placement issues are a worry, but the Tigers’ fortunes won’t change until the running game is effective. Otherwise, a November that includes Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama will be ugly.

Winner: Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State always had efficient offenses with J.T. Barrett under center, but his passing ability was limited. Dwayne Haskins has brought a new level of effectiveness to the Buckeyes’ scoring attack. It’s true Ohio State is attempting fewer downfield shots with Haskins running the show, but it’s also the product of significantly better accuracy in fewer attempts. The sophomore leads the country in touchdowns and holds top-10 ranks in completion percentage, yards per pass and rating. As long as he’s healthy, the Buckeyes are a premier team.

Loser: Florida Atlantic Owls

Call it rat poison or whatever else; Florida Atlantic hasn’t lived up to expectations following its dramatic 2017 season. Oklahoma crushed Lane Kiffin’s team in the opener, and Central Florida did the same a few weeks later. But, even while disappointing, those weren’t a complete shock. Oklahoma and UCF are really good! Surrendering an 18-point lead and losing to Middle Tennessee, though, was unacceptable. Florida Atlantic is 3-3 and hasn’t won a game on the road. The Owls can rebound and contend for the Conference USA crown, but New Year’s Six bowl hopes have vanished.

Winner: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Three games into 2018, it was near-irresponsible to believe in the Irish as a championship contender. Notre Dame hadn’t scored more than 24 points in any of the first three contests. Since switching to Ian Book at quarterback, though, the Irish have averaged 46.3 points and earned marquee wins over Stanford and Virginia Tech. In three starts, Book has accounted for 11 touchdowns. Plus, the return of Dexter Williams has sparked the running game. The road-heavy remaining schedule won’t be easy, but it’s certainly favorable for Book and Notre Dame.

Loser: UCLA Bruins

Through six weeks, no program has faced a tougher slate than UCLA. Four previous opponents are ranked, and a strong Mountain West program in Fresno State is 4-1. Even outside of games against the Bruins, those teams are a combined 20-3. Still, that’s simply one factor to a horrible situation. UCLA ranks 125th nationally in scoring and 110th in yards per play. Chip Kelly’s expertise hasn’t translated right away, and the result is a frustrating 0-5 start for the Bruins. We’re not close to bailing on Kelly, but the road back to relevancy will require a bunch of patience.

Winner: Florida Gators

The early candidate for “Best Immediate Hire” is Dan Mullen, who has guided Florida to a 5-1 record with a pair of terrific wins. In consecutive weeks, the Gators knocked off Mississippi State — Mullen’s former team — and edged a previously unbeaten LSU. Considering the problems of Florida’s defense in an early loss to Kentucky, this rapid turnaround has been sensational. Mullen has orchestrated a long-awaited resurgence from the UF passing game, too. October’s showdown with Georgia will be the ultimate test, but the Gators are trending up.

Loser: Nebraska Cornhuskers

As the season has progressed, some encouraging signs have emerged from the Nebraska offense. True freshman Adrian Martinez is looking like the quarterback of the future Scott Frost expects him to be. However, the first-year coach hasn’t enjoyed a magical year in the return to his alma mater. The Cornhuskers are 0-5 with losses of 14-plus points to all three Big Ten opponents. They’re not even close to competing within the conference. Barring a surprise, Nebraska is headed to at least nine losses — which would tie the record for most in program history.

Winner: American Athletic Conference

Most of the college football world knows about UCF. After an undefeated year in 2017, the Knights have opened the season with five straight wins and climbed into the Top 10. But they’re not alone in the conference. Cincinnati has rattled off a 6-0 start and entered the rankings, which also includes South Florida at 5-0. Each program has defeated at least one power-conference foe, and no other league has three undefeated teams. For good measure, Houston holds a 4-1 record. Don’t declare it the “Power Six” just yet, but the AAC is clearly the nation’s next-best conference.

Loser: Florida State Seminoles

As if combining for 10 points in blowout losses to Virginia Tech and Syracuse wasn’t bad enough, the Seminoles now have 2018’s most embarrassing collapse. Worst of all, it happened against their rival. Florida State coughed up a 20-point second-half lead to Miami, which limited the ‘Noles to 39 yards of offense after FSU went ahead 27-7. Through six games, Willie Taggart’s team is a Louisville interception and horrible tackle attempt away from 2-4. The situation Jimbo Fisher left wasn’t perfect. Given the talent on the roster, though, this isn’t supposed to be a rebuild, either.

Winner: Colorado Buffaloes

The final analysis of Colorado is far from finished. Consecutive trips to USC and Washington will provide further insight into the Buffs. Still, there’s no reason to not applaud a 5-0 start from the program. Mike MacIntyre — whose name can be scratched off any potential hot-seat list — has uncovered a gem on offense. Laviska Shenault Jr. already has 51 catches for 708 yards with six touchdowns, and his presence has turned quarterback Steven Montez into an efficient monster. Again, the road is about to get tougher. But there’s plenty to like about Colorado.

Loser: Louisville Cardinals

What a mess. Replacing a college football legend in Lamar Jackson would never be easy, yet a little bit of competence would be great. The quarterbacks have combined for only 6.7 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. Plus, the running game has mustered only 3.7 per carry. In both 2016 and 2017, the 2-4 Cardinals ranked third and fourth nationally in yards per play. This season, they’re 104th. Louisville’s only victories came against FCS school Indiana State and a limping Western Kentucky program. Bobby Petrino’s job security is dwindling.

Winner: Miami Hurricanes

There’s no question Miami’s season-opening performance was dreadful. But the ‘Canes have transitioned from Malik Rosier to N’Kosi Perry at quarterback and won five straight since that LSU beatdown. Perry has thrown eight touchdowns in three games of meaningful action, including four during the comeback victory over FSU. The defense is pretty good, too. Miami leads the nation in tackles for loss and has broken out the Turnover Chain 14 times for the sixth-most takeaways. While a road-heavy second half could include an upset loss, the ‘Canes are becoming an ACC force.

Loser: Connecticut Huskies

Sometimes, “historically bad” gets tossed around and doesn’t garner much attention. Let’s change that and really focus on Connecticut for a moment. Since 2009, the absolute worst defense in college football allowed 7.7 yards per play. During that span, only three have surrendered more than 7.5 over a whole season. After six weeks, the Huskies have ceded 9.21 yards per snap. There almost aren’t enough adjectives to describe that inept performance. UConn has given up at least 49 points in every game. Really, it’s a surprise the 1-5 Huskies even have a victory.