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Last Week in College Football: The Best Kind of Bait and Switch

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The headliner fell flat, but week five offered plenty of fantastic college football games and several thrilling upsets for fans who watched more than the Georgia-Auburn snooze fest.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Week five of the 2020 college football season was the rare example of a bait-and-switch that worked out for the better. College football fans were baited into watching with the promise of the first can’t-miss marquee matchup of the season in Georgia-Auburn, but while the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry proved a one-sided affair thanks to a dominant performance by Bulldogs, viewers were instead treated to an array of thrilling games, nail-biting finishes, and the types of upsets that make college football a one-of-a-kind sport.

Let’s start with the upsets: six ranked teams were defeated by unranked opponents on Saturday, which made for exciting viewing but should hardly be considered surprising in the context of the 2020 season. With COVID-19 disrupting pre-season prep, shifting schedules on a moment’s notice, and sidelining otherwise healthy players and coaches who come in contact with the virus for meaningful lengths of time, fans should expect teams’ performance to vary more from week to week than they normally would. The impact of the coronavirus on teams’ preparation also made it substantially more difficult for pundits to assess which teams were truly primed for contention entering September.

Predicting the outcome of a college football season is more art than science under the best of circumstances, but the unique challenges presented by prepping a team during a pandemic will prove a greater challenge to some programs than others, which can impact teams in ways that are impossible to predict. Teams that are blessed with exceptional talent but lack the coaching discipline, program stability, or even fortunate luck of avoiding a rash of cases on their campus, could struggle to meet the expectations of fans and pundits who assume that the outcomes of the game will be decided only by the talent on the field and not disproportionately impacted by the chaos occurring outside it.

Exhibit A for this theory is Texas. The Longhorns have all the talent in the world, but after narrowly surviving in a thriller against Texas Tech last week, Tom Herman’s team blew several opportunities to put the TCU Horned Frogs away before ultimately falling to them. Penalties wiped away big plays, blown defensive assignments led to significant gains by the TCU offense, and a goal line fumble late in the contest helped the Longhorns snatch defeat from the hands of victory. For the second week in a row, Texas appeared woefully unprepared to play up to the level of its talent. The Longhorns entered the week in the Big 12 driver’s seat but must now go back to the drawing board in hopes of salvaging its season.

Things were no better for Texas’ archrival Oklahoma Sooners, who lost their second straight game for the first time since 1999, with Saturday’s second loss coming against Iowa State, no less. The Sooners, who began the season ranked #5 in the country, are now an unfathomable 1-2 and 0-2 in conference play, and the losses of both the Sooners and Longhorns may have put the Big 12’s playoff aspirations on life support only five weeks into the season.

While Oklahoma and Texas faltered, four other would-be contenders added some serious support to their playoff resumes this week. The Georgia team that brutally and efficiently dismantled Auburn on both sides of the ball seemed a far cry from the squad that trailed Arkansas at halftime of last week’s game, although the Dawgs’ offensive struggles appear more understandable after watching Arkansas force four turnovers in their win over #16 Mississippi State.

Meanwhile, Alabama and Clemson were the well-oiled machines fans expect from two of the most accomplished programs of the past decade, cleanly dispatching of Texas A&M and Virginia respectively. Finally, Florida’s 38-24 win over South Carolina served notice to every defensive coordinator in the SEC that Kyle Pitts can single-handedly wreck any game plan they concoct to stop the Gator offense. The talented tight end has six receiving touchdowns through two games after scoring five times during the entirety of last season, and seems virtually unguardable with his combination of size, speed, and ball skills. Until the Big 10 and Pac 12 begin playing or another team proves otherwise, the top four schools in the AP poll have to be considered the clear favorites to win the national title.

Week five made clear the size of the chasm between college football’s have and have-nots, but it also had several other important lessons to teach us. Fans who watched the SMU/Memphis game were shown how long layoffs can impact a game when Memphis (a team who has had multiple games cancelled and rescheduled and hasn’t played since week one) fell far behind before rallying to make things interesting late, while SMU answered the question that nobody was asking when it showed us that an entire student section can indeed be kicked out of a game for failure to follow COVID protocols.

The Kentucky Wildcats reminded fans that teams who try to beat themselves usually end up succeeding, as the Cats lost in overtime due to both a botched extra point and a preemptive touchdown celebration which dropped the would-be scorer short of the goal line and later led to a turnover. Virginia Tech, which has been hit as hard by COVID as any team in the nation, proved that it is possible to win consecutive games with several players and coaches under quarantine. Finally, Tulsa showed us that its near upset of Oklahoma State a few weeks ago was no fluke and proved that it actually IS possible for UCF to lose at home.

What lessons will week six of the strangest college football season in recent memory bring? We can’t wait to find out.