Holy triskaidekaphobia. An unusually batty college football season heads for the usual batty November with an evil eye upon 13. Contenders for the four-team playoff just got whittled across September and October to, yeah, sure, 13. The only way the contenders would exceed 13 is if the tumult escalates to let in a two-loss team, which hasn’t happened in the playoff era, and which would prompt only one word.
In reality, there are 13, and here come some intra-13 dates. Tennessee (8-0) will play at Georgia (8-0) in an all-13 colossus on Nov. 5, just when we thought we could stop spending time ever thinking about any Tennessee vs. Georgia. (Their last five meetings had gone 207-64 to Georgia.) Alabama (7-1) will play at Mississippi (7-1) in a 13-vs.-13 matter on Nov. 12, as little old Mississippi just sent the wealthy punch-drunk recruiting champion Texas A&M (3-5) to a fourth straight loss. (“Three hundred and ninety rushing yards against a bunch of five-stars is pretty good,” went the shaded critique of Mississippi Coach Lane Kiffinto SEC Network.)
Ohio State stays on playoff path (college football winners and losers)
Damned if, come Nov. 19, it won’t be prudent to pay attention to Southern California (7-1) at UCLA (7-1) for reasons beyond envying the Rose Bowl, when recent years had seemed to tame that rivalry to a matter of interest in only one great metropolis. (If that.) And then on Nov. 26, of course, there’ll be that old noise from the Midwest as Michigan (8-0), scary-muscular, plays at Ohio State (8-0), scary-fast. (And that’s just at defensive end.)
If you want to get technical within the 13, look at this, too: Nov. 19, Illinois (7-1) at Michigan. Illinois — one of the 13 contenders, yep — would be the only American team allowing single-digit points (8.9) to oppositions. Oppositions have yet to bring along Michigan’s Blake Corum, who reached 1,078 yards rushing already.
Further intra-13 matters could happen in conference championship games, if Clemson (8-0) were to play North Carolina (7-1), or Oregon (7-1) were to play either Southern California or UCLA. Yet beyond even all that, the 13 boasts its darlings in a sport that can run short of darlings.
Now there’s a darling in Knoxville (Tennessee). Now there’s a darling in Fort Worth (TCU).
At Tennessee (8-0) late Saturday night, a reporter asked a defensive back with an apt name, Doneiko Slaughter, if he feels surprised the Volunteers could soar like this just two seasons after the 3-7 that helped shoo previous coach Jeremy Pruitt.
“Yes,” Slaughter answered. “Yes, I am.”
Everyone laughed, including the quarterback to Slaughter’s left, Hendon Hooker, that marvel with 24 touchdown passes, only one interception, and a description of Tennessee as like the mailman, delivering every day, which showed a young man’s grasp of history.
Tennessee overcame a perceived Florida hurdle and an overtime trip to Pitt in September and an eternal Alabama roadblock in October, but what it did Saturday night might rocky-top all of them.
Think of it this way: Mark Stoops, a fabulous football coach even if his older brothers weren’t also football coaches, has spent his 10 seasons at Kentucky molding Kentucky into a deeply likable, deeply realized, deeply rugged, often-ranked team, one that throttled Tennessee 34-7 in Knoxville in 2020.
Yet the return trip just saw a 44-6 throttling in the other direction, the direction traditionally normal. It was supposed to be a hard game. It was supposed to be a trap game, pre-Georgia. It became a wow game, a show of newfound force.
Players refer to “Coach Heup,” which you’d pronounce “hype,” which refers to Josh Heupel, who got there two Januarys ago just as others (players) strove to get out of there.
“As soon as he stepped in,” Slaughter said, “I just felt like the whole room, the whole room’s mood changed.”
“When ‘Coach Heup’ got here, it surprised me,” the unstoppable receiver Jalin Hyatt said before going on to say, “And I think why we’re so close, just as a team, because I feel like a lot of people have the adversity stories here, and it just brings us closer together …”
“I do like this football team,” said Heupel, who had head-coached only four other seasons before, “because they do have good practice habits, you can tell that they care about each other and they’re gonna play hard for each other.”
Now they take their force and Hyatt’s 45 catches with a Vol-record 14 touchdowns to Georgia. That’s where the defending champion plays between hedges beside an air-conditioned bulldog doghouse, and that’s the defending champion that just dedicated its 42-20 clocking of Florida to its eternal coach Vince Dooley, who died at 90 on Friday, and who got lovely tributes from much younger men such as this from offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran: “At least we would like to say that we send our condolences, that we played our hearts out for what he did for this program and just wanted to show that we appreciate everything that he did.”
The darling out in Fort Worth keeps plugging even when the plugging gets knotty. TCU (8-0) didn’t have to spend its tricky trip to West Virginia rallying from 30-16 in the fourth quarter, as it did with Oklahoma State, or from 28-10, as it did with Kansas State, but it did have to weather a few blunders and a 38-28 game against a spirited host.
First-year coach Sonny Dykes credited that host profusely while also telling reporters in Morgantown“I think part of getting on a run like we’re on right now is you have to win some games you probably doing play your best.”
One reporter noted that safety Bud Clark, up at the dais, seemed perhaps glum, maybe over West Virginia’s 430 yards.
“Oh yeah, I’m happy right now,” Clark said with a winning smile. “I just got a little serious face because of (doing) the interview.”
He, after all, belongs to the 13, which features the six unbeaten teams (Georgia, Ohio State, Tennessee, Michigan, Clemson, TCU) and the seven one-loss teams (Alabama, Mississippi, Oregon, Southern California, UCLA, Illinois, North Carolina), but do not feature the one-loss teams of the Group of Five, the layer just beneath the Power Five, because life is rude and college football life is ruder yet.
So in the rude wilds of it, the 13 became the 13 with some shedding on Saturday. Off the list went then-No. 9 Oklahoma State (6-2), as the oft-contending and oft-overlooked Cowboys took an are-you-sitting-down 48-0 loss at No. 22 Kansas State, in one of those occasional college football scores that seem to discombobulate all five senses, in this case because no top-10 team had lost a shutout by that much to a lower-ranked team in the entire 153 years of all this tomfoolery. Off the list went then-No. 10 Wake Forest (6-2), and if you don’t believe the admirable Deacons made an impossible six turnovers in the third quarter and eight in the second half, just read the play-by-play over and over and over and over again to make sure.
Off the list went Syracuse (6-2), overrun at home to some small and forgotten Catholic school from northern Indiana. And off went Penn State (6-2), which welcomed Ohio State like normal, led Ohio State in the fourth quarter like semi-normal and lost to Ohio State like normal, as one J.T. Tuimoloau from Greater Seattle posted these dreamy numbers as the latest Buckeye defensive-end marvel: six tackles, two sacks, two interceptionsone forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one clinching pick-six.
Then an amiable Tuimoloau met reporters in State College, Pa., and described both himself after the pick-six and how one might have felt in so many turbulent moments in this season distilled to 13.
“I just blacked out,” he said.