Midseason Superlatives: The Best, Worst and Weirdest of the First Half

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Here we are, halfway through the college football regular season, and it seems like it was just Labor Day weekend, when we had not yet remembered that this sport is an all-too-quick 14-week sprint toward an interminable month of waiting for the College Football Playoff. Still, by the end of October the selection committee’s first rankings will be out, and there’s something to be learned from that group’s novel idea of waiting until deep into the season to start ranking teams: we’ve covered a lot of ground and learned a lot of lessons since early September. Seven weeks in, it’s clear some storylines remain just as central to the discussion as they were last year: Clemson, Nick Saban, Ohio State, UCF. Others have changed: Texas’s return to relevance, and USC’s retreat from it; Cincinnati crashing the national conversation; Kyler Murray taking Baker Mayfield’s eye-popping single-season Oklahoma records as a challenge.

It’s easy to pick out the central themes of the season, but sometimes the details—from isolated oddities to moments indicative of larger trends—can get overshadowed by those broad strokes. With that in mind, we’re handing out midseason superlatives for the plays, moments and people that made the first half memorable, meaningful and fun.

Best Catch

It took less than four minutes of the college football season for Texas Tech’s T.J. Vasher to pull down the most spectacular grab so far this year. On third down, quarterback McLane Carter found Vasher down the sideline for a 31-yard reception, which the receiver snared with his right hand while falling backward. The catch set up the Red Raiders’ first touchdown of the year.

Wildest Finish

Oregon’s only loss of the season came in spectacular fashion in Week 4, when Stanford staged a frantic 17-point rally that started with a full-field fumble return for a touchdown to cut the lead to 10 and ended with some overtime heroics that could have been avoided. The Ducks led 31–28 with 51 seconds to go in regulation and possession of the ball. They were moments away from being able to take a knee when running back C.J. Verdell fumbled, setting up a last-second Stanford field goal.

In overtime, Cardinal tight end Colby Parkinson tipped a 23-yard touchdown catch to himself, and then Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert had his fourth-down heave to the end zone tipped and caught—by Stanford cornerback Alameen Murphy. Game over.

Best Trick Play

Early in an upset win over Arkansas in Week 3, North Texas return man Keegan Brewer received a punt without any fanfare on the Mean Green 10-yard line, and the Razorbacks’ coverage team peeled off toward the sideline—except Brewer never waved for a fair catch. The simplicity here was genius, but Brewer’s acting job is even better. Arkansas’ special teams unit, meanwhile, assumed Brewer had signaled for the fair catch, and the four specialists running for Brewer pulled up short of him. As soon as they turned around, Brewer sprung into action, taking the ball 90 yards down North Texas’s sideline for a touchdown.

Coach Who Helped His Stock the Most

In spite of a Week 1 loss to Maryland, the nod goes to Tom Herman. Maybe even because of the Longhorns’ Week 1 no-show, it goes to Herman. That letdown in Landover has put what the Longhorns have done since into stark contrast: They’re 5–1 on the year and have beat three teams that were ranked at kickoff, avenging 2017 losses to USC, TCU and most importantly Oklahoma. After surviving a heart-stopping Red River Showdown, Texas is back in the thick of the Big 12 race, and Herman’s turnaround efforts in Austin have a groundswell of goodwill behind them.

Worst Play Call

It’s easy to second-guess crunch-time decisions made with millions of people watching, but they are still talking in State College about what Penn State dialed up on a do-or-die fourth-and-five against Ohio State: an inside read-option handoff to running back Miles Sanders that was blown up at the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes were certainly keyed in on Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley, and with better execution up front Sanders would have had a chance to make a play, but the decision to take the ball out of McSorley’s hands that far away from the line to gain will be remembered as one of the biggest moments of the Big Ten’s 2018 season.

Worst Officiating Decision

Compared with the uproar over the NFL’s new rules, college football officials have had a relatively easy time of things this season, but this call against linebacker Devin White in LSU’s game against Auburn was unnecessary at best. In the first quarter of the game, White burst through the line to force a turnover on downs, then celebrated with the Superman stance popularized by Auburn hero Cam Newton. Apparently, that was enough for an unsportsmanlike conduct call.

Best Group of Five Game

UCF had to work to extend its nation-leading winning streak to 19 games on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The Knights trailed 30–17 at halftime in sloppy conditions against a befuddling Memphis team that has lost to Tulane this season but also has the FBS’s leading rusher, Darrell Henderson. It seemed like the Tigers had limited star quarterback McKenzie Milton on the ground enough to neutralize him, but UCF flipped a switch in the third quarter, sparked by a 71-yard touchdown run by Taj McGowan on a fourth-and-one.

After the next three drives ended in fumbles (two for Memphis, one for UCF), Milton found the end zone again to put UCF in front and the visitors held on for the 31–30 win.

Messiest Mid-Game Weather

Missouri led South Carolina 23–14 at halftime, but the Gamecocks drew life from the driving rain that came down out of nowhere in the third quarter and turned Williams-Brice Stadium into a Slip ‘N Slide, rallying for a 37–35 win on a 33-yard Parker White field goal with two seconds left. That was the second go-ahead field goal in the final 90 seconds, both of which came after an hour-plus lightning delay that stopped play with 2:41 left in the game as Missouri was mounting a go-ahead drive of its own.

You can watch the conditions swing wildly in this comprehensive highlights package:

… Or you can just read this tweet, which summed up the afternoon pretty well:

Best Celebration

This year, Dan Mullen has had reason to dance, with Florida in the top 15 and contending for an SEC East crown. Judging by these moves, maybe he knew what we didn’t in Week 1.

And this past weekend, Mullen’s son Canon got into the act.

Best College GameDay Sign

Clemson’s trip to Texas A&M featured this cross-sport (and prescient) message about the Tigers’ former starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, who two weeks later announced he would transfer after losing his job to Trevor Lawrence:

Best Turnover Chain Imitator

I don’t see how you can argue against Memphis’s Ric Flair turnover robe. From the feathers to the liberal use of tiger-striping, it’s a doozy. Plus, the color scheme is excellent. It’s just a shame the Tigers have only forced 11 turnovers in seven games this season.

Most Compelling Blowout

For the sheer offensive insanity of it, the nod here goes to Boise State’s 62–7 win over UConn, in which quarterback Brett Rypien and the Broncos put up 818 yards of offense. That’s not supposed to happen in a game between two FBS teams—and yet somehow (and with just one UConn turnover to hand Boise State extra possessions!) it did. Rypien will be in the NFL by this time next year, and he was excellent in a beatdown so ugly you couldn’t look away.

Least Competitive Blowout

Clemson’s 63–3 win over Wake Forest gets the nod here. (I considered only games between two Football Bowl Subdivision teams—there have been two 77-point wins in FBS vs. FCS games this year.) The Tigers never relented in Lawrence’s first career road start, putting up 698 yards of offense to the Demon Deacons’ 249.

Most Embarrassing Loss

Arkansas, which has already been featured here, gets another dubious mention for losing to Colorado State, which looked like one of the worst teams in the FBS at the time but has since beaten two other Mountain West bottom-feeders, San Jose State and New Mexico. The outcome of this game makes more sense now, considering the Razorbacks’ 1–5 record, but the comeback still boggles the mind: The Rams scored 25 unanswered points in the final 18 minutes to seal Chad Morris’s first loss.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Cincinnati is 7–0 and ranked in the AP Poll (No. 20) for the first time since 2013. Are the Bearcats going to make waves in the playoff race this year? Probably not. But if they can beat USF or UCF (which they get in back-to-back weeks in November), they could have a convincing case for a New Year’s Six bowl bid, an accomplishment ahead of schedule for year two under Luke Fickell after Cincy brought in the top recruiting class in the Group of Five last winter.

Worst Win

The same weekend that Colorado State stunned Arkansas, Florida State needed a valiant fourth-quarter effort to beat Samford, eventually pulling away for an uninspiring 36–26 victory while allowing a jaw-dropping 525 yards of total offense to an FCS team that sits at 3–4 on the year.

Most Misleading Game

In Week 2, Michigan State traveled to Arizona State ranked No. 15 and lost 16–13 on a last-second field goal that pushed Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils into the Top 25. Of note: The temperature at kickoff was close to 100 degrees, and the time of kickoff corresponded to nearly 10 p.m. East Lansing time. The conditions were set up to throw the Spartans off, and nine penalties for 82 yards didn’t help the visitors’ case. Michigan State may not be as talented of a team as some hoped going into the year, but it just knocked off Penn State in State College to return to the Top 25, while Arizona State has lost three out of its last four.

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