Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (anger management classes sold separately in Birmingham):
First Quarter: September in Review
We crammed five Saturdays into September, and seemingly a season’s worth of surprises, thrills, outrageous moments and instant controversies. It’s been fun. Before The Dash runs a 4.4 into October, let’s recap the month that was:
Team of the Month: Colorado (1). We’ve never experienced a five-week, season-opening ride quite like what the Buffaloes took us on. Deion Sanders’s arrival and subsequent roster overhaul created intense curiosity, immense hype and considerable doubt. After an eventful 3–2 start, much of the hype has been met and many of the doubts have been debunked. The Buffaloes are vastly improved and extremely entertaining, producing a product that has riveted the nation. A 1–11 program in 2022 has become a cultural phenomenon in 2023.
The TV ratings have been ridiculous, in no small part due to Sanders’s sizzle and ability to bring his celebrity bandwagon to Boulder. It’s been a month of theme music, receipts, catch phrases on sweatshirts, Saturday pregame shows camping out in Boulder, rappers, The Rock, NBA and NFL stars, quippy press conferences—and, yes, wildly entertaining football.
From the opening upset of TCU, it was clear that the Buffaloes had massively upgraded their talent and were particularly well-stocked at the skill positions. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Deion’s son, immediately proved that the jump up from FCS Jackson State was not only feasible but fairly easy. (If one player’s draft stock has soared this past month, it’s his.) Two-way player Travis Hunter was a force, even though he’s only played 2 1/2 games after being sidelined by a cheap shot from Colorado State defensive back Henry Blackburn. (Hunter has since become a force for positive change, shooting a classy video with Blackburn in which both young men put the play in question behind them, which should end the awful vitriol aimed at the CSU safety.)
That said, the program is far from built, which was brutally exposed by Oregon in a blowout loss. The Buffaloes followed that up with a home loss to USC in which they were shredded by Caleb Williams (join the club), but their second-half comeback to close within a touchdown in the final minutes was indicative of the competitive spirit Sanders has instilled, and the direction in which the program is headed.
“If you can’t see what’s coming with CU football, you’ve lost your mind,” Deion Sanders said Saturday. “You’re just a flat-out hater.” As he’s said many times since taking the job, Colorado is comin’. The first month of competition showed us that the timetable for arrival has been accelerated.
Bust of the Month: LSU (2). When The Dash picked the Tigers to win the SEC West, it came with the assumption that a defense featuring three players on the first-team coaches’ All-SEC unit would be able to stop someone. Anyone. Lo and behold, LSU is last in the league in yards allowed per play (6.47) and 13th out of 14 in total yards and points allowed per game. When Mississippi gouged the Tigers for an unconscionable 55 points and 706 yards—most allowed in school history—it dumped LSU out of the College Football Playoff race after just five weeks. It also put second-year coach Brian Kelly on a potential path toward the hot seat—likely not this year, but he could start ’24 under pressure.
Coach of the Month: Neal Brown (3), West Virginia. His team was picked to finish last in the Big 12, and he was ticked about it. “Looking forward to proving everybody wrong on that front,” Brown said in July at conference media days. “We won't finish there.”
The proving wrong has begun. The Mountaineers are 4–1 despite playing just one non-Power 5 opponent so far, and the victories include one in the Backyard Brawl rivalry game. They’re 2–0 in the league, beating a touted Texas Tech team and a TCU team that won 13 games last year. They should certainly be favored in their next two games, and possibly their next four before tussling with Oklahoma on Nov. 11.
Brown was the preseason favorite to be the first coach fired. That’s now a dead topic (for the time being). Give him the Coach of the Month award narrowly over Steve Sarkisian of Texas, Jake Dickert of Washington State, Mike Norvell of Florida State and Jeff Brohm of Louisville.
Player of the Month: Caleb Williams (4), USC. No shockers here. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has been as good as he was expected to be, perhaps even a little better. His pass efficiency rating of 217.70 leads the nation by 20 points and, if it can be sustained, would break the NCAA single-season record. (That will be tough to do with Notre Dame and Utah, two outstanding defenses, looming in October.) While Williams has some natural advantages playing in Lincoln Riley’s user-friendly system, behind a very good offensive line and with a flotilla of receivers, he can also make plays under duress.
“That kid is a flat-out baller,” Deion Sanders said of Williams Saturday. “It was a pleasure for me to play against him. That was fun.”
Conference of the Month: The Pac-12 (5). Oh, the irony of this league having its best season in years one month after being stripped and sold for parts, starting in 2024. The Pac-12 has delivered in non-conference play, resulting in three teams being ranked in the AP top 10 and six in the top 18. The league has Heisman contenders, high draft picks, good coaches and multiple playoff contenders—everything it needed to secure a stabilizing TV contract. Just a little too late.
League member Colorado was the big story to this point, but now the battle for Pac-12 supremacy takes center stage with Washington, Oregon and USC the prime contenders. But don’t overlook undefeated Washington State, or one-loss Oregon State and Utah. Every remaining weekend could feature at least one high-profile Pac-12 battle the rest of the way, with several big games likely landing in the #Pac12AfterDark window. Prepare to stay up late.
Game of the Month: Ohio State-Notre Dame (6). The most consequential game to date in terms of the playoff picture, and it went down to the final second. This showdown was vast and contained multitudes, highlighted by a succession of tense short-yardage plays that impacted the ebb and flow of the game. The last of them decided the game: a one-yard plunge that gave the Buckeyes the win against a 10-man Fighting Irish defensive formation. Then the aftermath took a WWE turn, with Ohio State coach Ryan Day weirdly flexing on 86-year-old former Irish coach Lou Holtz over a comment Holtz made on TV that Friday. The reverberations from this one might still be felt on Selection Sunday in December.
Enigma of the Month: Georgia (7). They’re undefeated as usual at this point. But the two-time reigning national champions haven’t played to the No. 1 ranking they have now held for 20 consecutive polls. In their two Southeastern Conference games to date, against South Carolina and Auburn, the Bulldogs have led for a total of just 30 minutes and eight seconds out of 120. They have started slowly, been inefficient offensively, forced zero fumbles defensively, and were sliced for 219 rushing yards by Auburn—the most Georgia’s brick-wall defense has allowed in five years. They don’t have the same bottomless well of dominating personnel as the previous two seasons—though they do still have tight end Brock Bowers (17 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns the last two games alone).
The schedule has grown some teeth in recent weeks, with four ranked opponents now looming between Oct. 7 and Nov. 18 (Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee). The ‘Dogs will have to play better to extend their current 22-game winning streak.
Four for the Playoff
Each week, The Dash brackets the College Football Playoff as if today is Selection Sunday. With five weeks of results to lean into, here’s how it looks:
Sugar Bowl: Top seed Florida State (8) vs. fourth seed Texas (9).
The Seminoles (4–0) had this past weekend off and now head into a three-game homestand. Their winning streak stands at 10, as does their stretch of games scoring more than 30 points (longest active streak in the country). There are some questions about whether Florida State is good enough defensively, having given up more than 425 yards and more than 280 through the air to every Power 5 opponent thus far. Next up for Florida State: Virginia Tech.
The Longhorns (5–0) have quietly become a very good defense, leading the Big 12 in yards allowed per game and ranking second in points allowed. They’ve given up a total of 20 points in their first two conference games. They’ve also been a dominant second-half team, outscoring opponents 120–35. Running back Jonathon Brooks is the emerging star, compiling 587 rushing yards and four touchdowns the past three games. Next up for Texas: fellow unbeaten Oklahoma in Dallas, in one of the biggest meetings in this rivalry in many years.
Rose Bowl: second seed Ohio State (10) vs. third seed Washington (11).
The Buckeyes (4–0) were off after surviving that battle in South Bend. They’ve given up more points every game—three to seven to 10 to 14—but this is still the first time since 2007 that Ohio State has gone through its first four games giving up fewer than 15. Quarterback Kyle McCord had his baptism by fire on the game-winning drive at Notre Dame; we’ll see if that springboards him into a standout remainder of the season. Next up for Ohio State: hosting undefeated and explosive Maryland.
The Huskies (5–0) did what they’ve often failed to do in past seasons, coming out of a trip to the state of Arizona with a victory. They beat Arizona 31–24 in a game that wasn’t quite as close as the score indicates. Michael Penix Jr. had his streak of games with a touchdown pass stopped at 11, but his streak of 300-yard passing games is now five and counting. Next up for Washington: an open date followed by a monster showdown with Oregon in Seattle Oct. 14.
Dropped out: Penn State.