Texas and the Sun Belt rattled CFB's hierarchy in a weekend that upended the sport

ByDavid M. Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, September 11, 2022

Texas is not back.

Not on Saturday, anyway. Not without its burgeoning star QB, Quinn Ewers. Not on Nick Saban's watch.

But for 59 minutes against Alabama, Texas seemed astonishingly close to turning the page on a decade of heartbreak, embarrassment and jokes before falling to the Tide 20-19.

It was, it turns out, a fitting appetizer for a day of utter chaos -- much of it delivered by the Sun Belt. Appalachian Statestunned Texas A&M. Marshalltoppled Notre Dame. Georgia Southern may have delivered the final dagger to Scott Frost at Nebraska. It was such an impressive performance by the Sun Belt that Kevin Warren has already expressed interest in adding six of its teams.

Then there was Kentucky, which ended the Anthony Richardson's Heisman Trophy campaign before Florida even had a chance to print up a batch of promotional Jorts. Washington State went on the road and beat Wisconsin, and USC's offense looked every bit as dangerous as the best of Lincoln Riley's Oklahoma teams. It was a needed respite for the Pac-12.

And yet, despite all of it, perhaps nothing rattled the sport's hierarchy more than the action in Austin.

For much of the 12 years since Texas last played Alabama -- another game in which it lost its starting quarterback -- the Longhorns have served as a national punchline, with "Texas is back!" the easiest joke in college football. (Though, credit to Texas for providing plenty of other material, from "OK, cool. Hook 'em" to multiple losses to Kansas to an attack monkey trained to steal Halloween candy. It has been a wild decade.) And yet, Texas was no joke Saturday. It was a worthy competitor for a team many expect to win the national title. It was a team that, with Ewers -- or, perhaps, a properly called safety in the end zone in the third quarter -- might've pulled the miracle.

Instead, it was still a loss, the seventh in the past nine games for Texas. But the feeling in the aftermath isn't the familiar aura of malaise. No, as the Gen Z kids would say, Saturday felt like a genuine vibe shift.

Texas might've won with Ewers, who left the game with a shoulder injury in the first half (or, perhaps, because he only had enough quarters to feed the meter through halftime).

Texas might've won if its kicker hadn't flubbed a 20-yard field goal.

Texas might've won if it simply wasn't Texas, wasn't the team that had been on the wrong side of things for so long that the universe simply couldn't allow such a massive upset to occur so early in the season.

Mostly though, Texas might've won if it had Bryce Young, who proved once again that he's the best player in college football (and saved this weatherman a very embarrassing apology during Sunday's weather report).

Young accounted for 68 yards on Alabama's gotta-have-it 11-play touchdown drive with 8:29 to go, a merciless shredding of a Texas defense that had been dominant to that point. Then, after the Longhorns took a two-point lead with 1:29 play, Young delivered again, a Houdini-esque escape from a sack turning into a 20-yard gain that set up the game-winning field goal.

"When his best was needed," Saban said after the game, "he was really good."

Young has done this again and again in his brilliant career, saving Alabama againstFloridaand LSUand Auburnlast year, and again Saturday, with one unflappable late drive after another. Much as we might want to turn our attention elsewhere, he is without question college football's best player.

How good is Texas? Ewers was shredding Alabama's secondary before suffering a shoulder injury in the first half, and Longhorns fans will spend the next few days -- heck, maybe the next few years -- wondering what might've been if the former five-star recruit had remained in the game. The Texas defense dominated at the line of scrimmage, inhaling Alabama blockers and tormenting Young throughout, while the DBs gave the Tide virtually nothing downfield.

How seriously should we consider Alabama's struggles? Young remains a superstar, and Will Anderson Jr.delivered with a game-saving sack when it was needed the most. But a good chunk of the state of Texas already knew Bill O'Brien wasn't exactly a hall-of-fame play caller. The Alabama receivers offered little help, and the O-line was hardly the brick wall we'd grown used to seeing from Saban's teams over the years. Has Saban's NIL money from all those Aflac commercials become a distraction to the team? (Note: How has this not been a message board topic yet?) It's easy to shrug off an Alabama setback because previous prognoses of Saban's demise have resulted in utter embarrassment for all the dime-store Miss Cleos who predicted it. And yet, we've seen this version of Alabama more in the past year -- often against lesser teams -- than we've seen throughout the bulk of Saban's elite career.

Are we living in a computer simulation? The fact that a red-haired kicker named Bert Auburn nearly sealed a Texas win over the Tide would lead us to believe that, yes, we are. No way that happens unless we're in the Matrix.

That's actually fitting because, for much of the past 12 years, the only case to be made for Texas' return to national prominence required a bit of theoretical physics and a healthy imagination. After Saturday, however, it's not so outlandish.

No, Texas isn't back, but even a win Saturday wouldn't have proved the Longhorns had reached some long-anticipated mountaintop. The journey back is exactly that -- a journey. And what Saturday was, in spite of the final score, was a necessary and emphatic step in the right direction.

Aggies fall off a cliff

Fifteen years ago, Appalachian State knocking off a traditional power was an earth-shattering moment.

Now? Maybe a mild surprise, with the Mountaineers delivering their latest stunner Saturday.

Check back on App State's recent history against the Power 5: Just a week ago, the Mountaineers traded body blows with North Carolinain a 63-61 loss. In 2021, only a late field goal saved Miami, which won 25-23. In 2019, App State won on the road at North Carolina and South Carolina. In 2018, App took Penn Stateto overtime. In 2017, it lost to Wake Forestby just one point. Add in another overtime loss to Tennesseein 2016, and App has been tied or ahead in the fourth quarter in eight of its past 10 against the Power 5.

On the other end of the Mountaineers'17-14 winSaturday was No. 6 Texas A&M, which was kind enough to upend its fans' expectations in Week 2 rather than waiting until October to do it. The Aggies managed just 186 total yards and one offensive touchdown.

A&M paid App State $1.5 million to come to College Station. Add that to the $9 million Jimbo Fisher is being paid not to develop a quarterback, and that's a lot of cash without much return on investment. Aggies boosters are going to have to think twice before ordering the 82-ounce ribeye at breakfast Sunday.

For years, Fisher was viewed as a quarterback whisperer, putting three straight into the first round of the NFL draft during his Florida Statetenure. But since Jameis Winston left after the 2014 season, it's been rough. No Fisher QB in that span has completed 60% of his passes and thrown more than 20 TDs in a season. For reference, 36 different QBs did that last season, including his current backup, Max Johnson, who transferred from LSU.

No luck for the Irish

After a loss to Ohio Statein the opener, Notre Damecoach Marcus Freeman insisted there was a silver lining: The Irish clearly had their QB in Tyler Buchner.

Buchner's line in the 26-21 loss Saturday to Marshall: 21-of-38 for 221 yards and two picks, including one returned for a TD that all but sealed the Thundering Herd's stunning upset late in the fourth quarter. The Irish are 0-2 to start a season for the first time since 2011.

It's hard to blame Buchner alone though. Khalan Laborn, a Florida Statetransfer, ran for 163 yards for Marshall, the most the Irish have allowed to a back since 2016.

Or, perhaps it's the AP voters' fault for overrating Notre Dame (again). According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Irish are the first team to start 0-2 while being ranked in the AP top 10 for both games since the 1986 Ohio State Buckeyes.

Or, perhaps it's Las Vegas' fault. The Irish closed as a 20.5-point favorite, making this the third-largest upset of Notre Dame in the past 45 years -- and the largest since the team fell to Air Force in 1996.

How is this Brian Kelly's fault, though? We haven't figured that out yet, but we're sure he's involved somehow.

Another agonizing loss for the Huskers

The Sun Belt delivered shocking wins over Texas A&M and Notre Dame on Saturday, and some might suggest there was also a third major upset. But those people have not seen Nebraska football under Scott Frost.

Yes, Georgia Southern was a 22.5-point underdog. And yes, the Eagles trailed by four with less than a minute to play.

But we know how this story ends. It's ended the same way in 11 straight single-digit games for Nebraska. Scott Frost is Charlie Brown, and the universe is Lucy. He keeps trying to play football. Fate keeps pulling the ball away.

Georgia Southern engineered an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to go up 45-42, and Nebraska missed a last-gasp, 52-yard field goal try.

The Cornhuskers are now 4-11 since the start of 2021. All 11 losses are by less than 10 points.

What did Frost do to deserve this? Yes, he walks under ladders constantly, which is odd since there are very few multi-story buildings in Nebraska. Sure, at a dusty crossroads outside Lincoln, he once made a deal with a mysterious stranger who promised to make him really good at checkers. And we admit, he does get a kick out of yelling "MacBeth!" during off-Broadway showings of the Shakespeare play (and, for some reason, the occasional showing of "Mama Mia.")

But no. The reason Frost must suffer this fate is obvious. He claimed a national championship in 2017, and no one -- we mean no one -- screws with Nick Saban and gets away with it.

Just look what happened to Jimbo Fisher on Saturday.

Two-point conversions

Washington Stateat Wisconsin

Point 1: Saturday's win marked the first by Washington State against a ranked, non-conference opponent on the road since beating Colorado-- back when Colorado was in the Big 12 -- in 2003. It's also the first win over a ranked non-conference foe by any Pac-12 team since Oregon topped Ohio State in Week 2 last year. Overall in those situations, the Pac-12 is just 4-13 in the playoff era, including the Cougars' win Saturday.

Point 2: Saturday was just the second time in Braelon Allen's last 11 games he didn't top 100 yards on the ground. He finished with 98.

Tennesseeat Pittsburgh

Point 1: Tennessee had 16 QB pressures, four sacks and nine tackles for loss. Pitt would've been better served putting up those spikes parking garages use to keep you from backing up rather than relying on its O-line to stop the Vols.

Point 2: Hendon Hooker's last nine games -- five of which came against ranked opponents -- he's completing 67% of his passes, averaging 9.4 yards-per-attempt, and has accounted for 26 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

Houstonat Texas Tech

Point 1: Joey Maguire has the Red Raiders looking sharp through two weeks, and a date with NC Stateis on the horizon. As for offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, he seems to be fitting in fine. Texas Tech has scored 99 points so far this season. Last year at Western Kentucky, Kittley's offense had just 94.

Point 2: So with Houston losing, who's the favorite to become team outside the Power 5 with realistic playoff hopes? It's a shame Appalachian State couldn't close out North Carolina last week, as the Mountaineers would have an awfully compelling resume. Instead, it's probably BYU.

Baylorat BYU

Point 1: Jaren Hall might be the most underappreciated QB in college football. Against Baylor's barbaric defense, and without his top two receivers, Hall still delivered an electric performance, completing 23-of-39 for 269 yards, then rushing for 28 more -- including some huge scrambles down the stretch -- while also catching a TD pass. Over his past six games, Hall has accounted for nearly 2,000 yards of offense with 17 touchdowns and just three picks. Oh, and BYU is 6-0 in those games.

Point 2: Dave Aranda made the bold call at the end of spring to name Blake Shapen as his starting QB, supplanting last year's starter Gerry Bohannon. Throughout most of Saturday's game, however, Baylor showed minimal confidence in Shapen's ability to deliver when it mattered. Despite averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, Baylor ran the ball 52 times. Add in 14 penalties -- including two false starts in a goal-to-go situation in double OT, and it was a game Baylor is likely to be kicking itself over for a while.

One shining moment for UK

Two weeks into the season, Syracuse,Kansas, UCLA, North Carolinaand Dukeare all undefeated. Not bad for a bunch of basketball schools.

But don't add Kentuckyinto that mix, despite John Calipari's claims. Mark Stoops has clearly turned this into a football school.

The Wildcats' defense dominated Florida on Saturday, turning a pick six into a 26-16 victory -- No. 61 in Stoops career in Lexington, topping Paul "Bear" Bryant for the most victories in school history. The win also marked the first time Kentucky had beaten Floridain consecutive years since 1976-77.

How impressive is Stoops' resume? The former Jimbo Fisher assistant actually has two more wins since 2017 (42) than his old boss (40).

Kentucky's star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. missed a second straight game, but it was no issue for the Wildcats, who simply added a few shots of Kavosiey Smoke, who racked up 80 yards on 14 carries to pace the offense.

So, when Kentucky's team plane lands in Lexington, we're hoping Calipari is there to carry Stoops' luggage. That's how it works at football schools.

Heisman Five

Anthony Richardson made his case for Heisman hype last week. Ah, the Heisman Five is a fickle list. Nevertheless, Richardson's conference mates maintain the top two spots as we wrap Week 2.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide QB Bryce Young

As impressive as Young has been since taking over the Alabama offense last season, he hadn't shown much of an interest in running the ball. But last week, he rushed for 100 against Utah State, and his 20-yard scramble Saturday was the key to setting up the game-winning field goal against Texas. Because if there's one thing the SEC opponents needed was for Young to become more versatile.

2. Georgia Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett

Bennett followed up his stellar opener against Oregon by scorching an FCS opponent, throwing for 300 yards and accounting for two touchdowns. Additionally, he learned this week he's actually now third in line for the British throne. King Stetson IV has a nice ring to it.

3. Ohio StateQB CJ Stroud

Stroud threw for 351 yards and tossed four TDs in a 45-12 win over Arkansas State on Saturday. It was such an impressive performance, Red Wolves coach Butch Jones awarded him an honorary "champion of life" trophy.

4. USCQB Caleb Williams

We'll let this tweet speak for itself.

5. North CarolinaQB Drake Maye

In three career starts, Maye has completed 74% of his throws for 930 yards with 11 TDs and just one pick, and he has UNC 3-0. More impressive, a bulk of those stats came against App State, which Texas A&M will be the first to tell you is no easy task.

Under-the-radar game of the day

How wild was the UTSA-Armygame? It featured just three punts, nearly 1,000 yards, 18 third-down conversions and four game-tying touchdowns in regulation.

Oh, and Army threw for 300 yards in a game for the first time in 15 years.

The Black Knights led 28-14 after scoring early in the second half, but UTSA responded with three straight TD drives to take a 35-28 lead. Army responded with a game-tying TD with 1:03 to play, but UTSA wasn't done. The Roadrunners marched 53 yards in nine plays to set up a game-winning 41-yard field goal try ... and missed.

Instead, it was Frank Harris who delivered the final dagger in overtime, connecting with JT Clark for a touchdown and a 41-38 victory.

Harris threw for 359 yards in the game, which bested Army's trio of passers, who collected 304 yards through the air. The last time Army hit that mark was Nov. 17, 2007 against Tulsa, when Carson Williams threw for 340 -- on 38 passes.

Under-the-radar play of the day

Eastern Kentucky's Jayden Higgins did his Stretch Armstrong impression, reaching to haul in the one-handed grab in the second quarter against Bowling Green.

Of course, Higgins wasn't the last highlight from this game. His catch made the score 10-7 Bowling Green, but EKU would eventually charge back to take a 31-17 lead midway through the third quarter. Not to be outdone, the Falcons scored the next three touchdowns to take a 38-31 lead before Higgins hauled in a 3-yard TD pass as time expired to send the game to overtime.

And then the real fireworks began.

The two teams traded scores through seven overtimes before EKU emerged with a 59-57 win.

The most college football thing to happen Saturday

Across the country, fans were left without access to digital ticketsSaturday afternoon, including the good folks at Iowa.

Imagine their terror worrying how many punts they'd miss before the system was up and running again. We feel for them.

Thankfully, the issue was resolved by mid-afternoon. Iowa's offensive woes, however, keep returning an "Error 404: Page not found."

After escaping South Dakota State with a 7-3 win (a field goal and two safeties accounting for all of Iowa's points) in Week 1, Iowa lost the CyHawk trophy to Iowa Stateon Saturday 10-7.

According to Elias, this marks the first time an FBS or Division I-A team both scored 10 points or less and allowed 10 or less in each of its first two games since 1979.

It's fair to wonder how long Kirk Ferentz can allow his son to call plays when, two games into the season, Iowa has 14 points scored and 16 punts kicked.

Break up the Blue Devils

Is it too soon to start talking about Mike Elko as a coach of the year candidate?

After winning just five games in the previous two seasons combined, Elko has Duke at 2-0 after knocking off Northwestern31-23. Jordan Waters scored twice on the ground and Duke recovered a fumble in the end zone with just seconds left on the clock to secure the win.

A look ahead at the Blue Devils' schedule -- FCS North Carolina A&T, Kansas, Virginia and Georgia Tech await next -- and there's a real chance the ACC's worst team will go bowling in Elko's first year at the helm.

Or, perhaps, it's a bit of Duke's patented early-season success.

Since 2017, the Blue Devils are 7-1 in Power 5 nonconference games in August and September -- the most such wins by any Power 5 team. Their lone loss came to Alabama in 2019. Five of those wins came as an underdog.

After the season's opening month, however, things haven't gone quite as well. Duke is just 8-28 vs. Power 5 teams in October, November and December in that stretch.

Big bets and bad beats

Betting Alabama to cover the first-half spread had been one of the safest wagers in the sport. Since 2020, Saban's team is 21-7 against the spread in the first half of games (and 11-4 ATS overall in nonconference play).

Not surprisingly, the bettors at Caesars Sportsbook backed the Tide heavily. The line opened with Alabama as an 11.5-point favorite, but that number climbed all the way to 14 as 95% of tickets backing the Tide.

Instead, the Tide went to halftime tied with Texas at 10 -- a reminder that even Bryce Young can't outrun Vegas.

Northwestern was headed to a potential score-tying TD -- and a cover for bettors who took the over of 57 -- as Evan Hull rumbled toward the end zone with just seconds left on the clock. But Hull fumbled at the 1, and Duke recovered in the end zone to secure the 31-23 win -- and the under, in painful fashion.

The Sun Belt spent Saturday making magic. First, it was Marshall (+950) knocking off No. 8 Notre Dame. Then it was Appalachian State (+750) toppling No. 6 Texas A&M.So, how much would a $100 parlay on those two teams have paid out? That'd be a cool $8,300. Never doubt the Fun Belt.

According to ESPN's David Purdum, a Caesars bettor in New Jersey cashed in on an even more unlikely parlay -- winning all three legs of an in-game wager on Marshall (+1050), Washington State (+650) and App State (+700). His $50 wager returned $34,450.

Saturday marked the 110th consecutive time Kansas was an underdog in a Big 12 game, a streak dating back to 2009 -- three years before West Virginia joined the league. But there's progress in shifting public opinion. Saturday's 14-point spread was actually the lowest for Kansas in a conference game since 2009, too. And what happened? The Jayhawks won outright, knocking off West Virginia 55-42 in overtime. (Yes, you read that right. Kansas added a pick six in OT to become the rare two-score victors outside of regulation.) Kansas has now covered four straight as a Big 12 underdog, including two outright wins -- Saturday and last season against Texas. (Sorry, Texas. We didn't need to pour salt on your wounds but it's just so funny.) They're the first team to win by 13 in OT since Central Michigan defeated Eastern Michigan 36-23 in 1998.

The Sun Belt spent Saturday making magic. First, it was Marshall (+950) knocking off No. 8 Notre Dame. Then it was Appalachian State (+750) toppling No. 6 Texas A&M. Then it was Georgia Southern (+1,250) toppling Nebraska. Add in Washington State (+650) upsetting Wisconsin, and it marked the first time since the FBS/FCS split in 1978 that four teams favored by 17.5 points or more all lost.

According to ESPN's David Purdum, a bettor in New Jersey cashed in on three of them in a live bet, hitting Marshall, App State and Washington State -- turning a $50 wager into a $34,450 payout.

If you'd bet all four at kickoff, a $100 wager would've won you $850,400.

That'd go a long way toward Scott Frost's buyout.

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