Good morning, and welcome back! It’s good to have actual college football games to talk about, especially because the last few days have been a bit slower in more off-the-field news.
With a few notable exceptions, that first week of the season was pretty chalky. But one game is already enough to make a few fanbases teeter on an existential crisis, albeit for different reasons. And this week, two of them play against each other! That’ll be fun. L
Let’s talk about that game real quick.
Let’s talk about BYU at Tennessee, our first ANXIETY BOWL
This year was supposed to be different for Tennessee. They have a team full of experience at most position groups, highly rated talent (according to the 247 Team Talent Composite, they have the 15th most talented roster in all of college football), and hey, if teams are going to really take a step forward under a new coach, that proof of concept usually happens in Year 2.
Then they lost to Georgia State.
There are bad losses, even bad losses to G5 opponents, but losses like this just don’t happen very often. To put this into a bit of context, as Matt Hinton noted over the weekend, here is a complete list of FBS programs outside of the Sun Belt that Georgia State has defeated….ever.
Ball State (2015, 3-9)
Charlotte (2017, 1-11)
Western Kentucky (2017, 6-7)
And it isn’t like the Panthers, who by the way, went 2-10 last year, won this game off of flukey special teams plays or something. They ran for over 200 yards. They had more first downs than Tennessee. They controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game, and honestly, should have won by even more. They kicked Tennessee’s ass.
That’s not supposed to happen to any program with the resources and tradition of Tennessee. Heck, this result would be cause for alarm for a newer coach at an AAC school. But given the full context, I think it’s an especially big problem for the Volunteers.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, rather famously, was not Tennessee’s first choice for the gig. The job was originally offered to Greg Schiano. That move was so unpopular with fans (and hell, even political candidates), that it led to protests, and eventually Tennessee reversed course. Then they tried to hire Mike Leach, only for the AD to get canned before he could finish the deal. Depending on who you ask, other coaches were involved in the process too. Finally, Tennessee settled on Pruitt, a man who had never heard of asparagus.
I don’t think you could blame everything that happened during that coaching search on the fans, although I do think it’s fair that Tennessee fans, as a collective group, might not always be the most reasonable or grounded online. There was a lot more going on here than angry sports radio hosts or tweets.
The takeaway from all of this, to me, is that it shows how important it is for an administration, coach, and major boosters to all be on the 100% same page. This is an expensive sport that attracts big egos, and if everybody isn’t on the same page, like we’ve occasionally seen over the last few years at places like Texas, Florida State, Maryland and now Tennessee, building and sustaining any kind of success becomes very difficult. Warring factions at Rocky Top helped create an environment where you have head coach who apparently eats like Cookie Monster and gets bodied by Sun Belt teams.
I think Tennessee probably still makes a bowl game this year. But if they lose to BYU, boy that suddenly looks a lot trickier. And even if they find a way to get to 6-6, but fail to beat Florida, Georgia or Alabama, those angry fans are gonna get real mad. And we’ve seen what those fans do when they get real mad.
What about BYU?
BYU football feels like it’s always kinda teetering on existential crisis. And a loss this weekend may expedite that plunge.
BYU lost their season opener to Utah. On the surface, there’s no real shame in that. This might be Utah’s best team in years, they’re the Pac-12 favorite, and BYU hung close for about two and a half quarters. It’s not like they were expected to win.
But Utah is BYU’s hated rival, and they’ve now lost this game nine times in a row. Usually, the Holy War is very close (even when it shouldn’t be), but thanks to copious BYU errors, this year’s edition ran off the rails pretty quick about midway through the third quarter.
With that loss, BYU sits at a bit of a crossroads.
Starting his 4th season in Provo, Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake is now just 20-20. He’s 0-4 against Utah, 0-3 against Boise State, and 1-2 against Utah State…and BYU will probably be an underdog against the Broncos and Aggies again this season.
It’s hard to argue this program hasn’t declined. After four consecutive seasons of finishing in the top 30 in S&P+ from 2006-2009, the Cougars haven’t hit that mark again since. They’ve only been ranked in the Top 25 a handful of weeks since going independent, and haven’t finished in the AP poll since the 2009 season. With Tennessee, Washington, USC, Boise State, and some potentially tricky G5 teams like South Florida, Toledo and Utah State left on the schedule, missing a bowl may very well be more likely than making the Top 25 this season.
If you’re in your early 30s (like me) or older, you probably remember BYU being pretty good at least once. But if you were born after 1990, like every single college football recruit, plus nearly an entire generation of other fans…you don’t.
There’s a different kind of administrative crisis here. I think BYU’s administration and boosters all want Kalani Sitake to succeed, and want this program to be at least in the conversation for Top 25 bids, if not more. But I don’t know if anybody is really prepared to do what is required to get there.
A lot of the school’s challenges cannot really be changed. The school isn’t going to play on Sundays. It’s almost certainly going to be a super white campus (and city). A huge chunk of their roster is going to serve LDS missions, where they’ll be riding bikes and eating terrible food instead of playing football. The head coach is always going to have to be an active member of the LDS church, which means the applicant pool is like….four people. If that.
But at the end of the day, this team’s roster, in my view, just isn’t good enough. The roster is 69th (nice) in the Talent Composite. There are only four kids on the roster who were top 300 recruits in their class, and two of those kids were transfers. As an independent, they’re playing at least half their schedule, every year, against teams with much better players. And if they decide to downgrade the schedule to grab more wins, their TV contract won’t be as valuable. They’re stuck playing who they’re playing.
Is the school willing to continue to invest in assistant coaches and recruiting infrastructure? Are they willing to do what it takes to really improve the talent level on campus? Or will they continue to throw themselves at a half dozen teams with NFL talent, and wonder why they only win one or two?
If BYU loses this game, 0-4 is a possibility. Hell, 0-8 isn’t impossible (will BYU be favored in more than one of those games? Beating an SEC team on the road may make that slow start a little more palatable. But if 0 and a big number looks more likely, expect this fanbase, and maybe the school, to ask themselves some more uncomfortable questions.
No matter what, whoever is 0-2 after next week is going to feel BAD. No pressure!
Wait, which conference as we supposed to bury again?
Personally, I think the MY CONFERENCE CAN BEAT UP YOUR CONFERENCE takes that are so ubiquitous in college football are boring as hell. Outside of the SEC, Utah, UCF and maybe one or two other schools, most fans don’t really care that much about conference pride. And yet, which conference should be DISBANDED AND BANISHED TO SUPERMAX PRISON OR MAYBE FCS is a pretty standard talk radio-ish trope.
That’s gonna heat up after week 1. If you’re somebody who is maybe tired of SEC supremacy, well, it’s fun to note that a whole lot of SEC East teams looked like butt in that first week. South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Missouri all lost, and Florida looked like butt in a win over Miami. Ole Miss also lost. CLEARLY THIS LEAGUE IS TRASH.
If screaming that makes you happy, who am I to judge? But while I think those week 1 results are credible ammunition to throw at say, a Kentucky fan boasting about how things are just different in the SEC, I’m not sure if it changes any meaningful national narratives. Every ranked SEC team won. The strength of the league, the Alabamas, the Georgias, the Auburns, the Texas A&Ms…there is still every reason to think they’ll be excellent football programs this year, capable of going toe to toe with just about anybody.
Compare that to the Pac-12. The league didn’t really have any totally horrific losses, outside of maybe UCLA at Cincinnati. Nobody got punked by an FCS team.
But the contenders for the league crown? They basically had only one shot at making national statement, and Oregon blew it. Utah’s big out of conference game? BYU. Same with Washington. Oregon’s other noncon games are Nevada and Montana. Washington State? They play Northern Colorado and Houston.
USC and Stanford (two teams unlikely to chase national glory) both play Notre Dame, and UCLA will get another shot at Oklahoma. But those three teams aren’t projected to make a run at even a New Year’s Six bowl.
Basically, nobody really cares how the worst teams in your conference do, if you have an elite bell cow or two. Per S&P+, the ACC was actually worse than the Pac-12 last year, but you wouldn’t know it, because Clemson won the national title and Larry Scott became a walking punching bag. It’s entirely possible that happens again this season.
The chances of the Pac-12 changing national narratives this season already seem dim. And quite frankly, a lot of that still has nothing to do with Larry Scott. Larry Scott’s questionable coaching didn’t lose the Auburn game for the Oregon Ducks. Larry Scott didn’t cause any QB injuries at USC, or make UCLA’s offensive line look like a MWC team, or schedule crummy out of conference opponents at Washington or Utah. That’s home rule, baby.
At the end of the day, this stuff usually doesn’t matter that much. I recommend you invest yourself in your team, or individual players or stories that make you happy.
But if your enjoyment of college football hinges on the SEC being humbled or everybody writing “actually, the Pac-12 is good now” columns…your season is not off to a good start.
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Questions, comments, feedback, concerns or offers to chip into the Tennessee coaches buyout fund should be sent to @MattSBN, or Matt.Brown@SBNation.com.