The cleat, the kick and the game that just defined this college football season

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As college football limped toward the finish of its fraught 2020 regular season, it was fitting its final full-slate Saturday was saved by a guy throwing a shoe.

And for a team with a leading Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Kyle Trask, it was ironic the season’s biggest throw came from cornerback Marco Wilson.

It all was a perfect example of the universe’s cyclical nature: the defending champs (what’s left of them, anyway) pulling off the season’s most stunning win.

Little has made sense in this wild spin around the sun we call 2020, and so it was that LSU’s dramatic upset of Florida on Saturday served as the ideal conclusion: a perplexing, thrilling, delightfully ridiculous game capped by the most hilariously irresponsible penalty since Elijah Moore lifted his leg in the end zone in last season’s Egg Bowl.

What was Wilson thinking when he tossed Kole Taylor‘s cleat 20 yards downfield after what appeared to be a third-down stop? Perhaps it was the heat of the moment, a thoughtless bit of celebration. Perhaps he just enjoyed “Austin Powers” and wanted people to send him the “Who throws a shoe?” clip 100 times a day for the remainder of his life.

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Florida’s Marco Wilson gets hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as he throws Kole Taylor’s shoe across the field after Taylor is stopped short of a first down.

It’s astonishing a penalty even mattered in this game. Florida has been dominant this season, poised for a potential College Football Playoff berth had it won Saturday and again next week in the SEC championship game. Meanwhile, half of LSU‘s team has opted out, gotten hurt or both. Instead, we got an Tigers team that at least appeared close to consistent, leading by a touchdown at the half, frustrating Trask often and having the ball and a chance to win with 2 minutes, 45 seconds to play.

And that was all prelude to Wilson’s shoe toss.

LSU freshman QB Max Johnson threw short on third-and-10, Florida made the stop as Taylor attempted to leap a defender, and his cleat came off into Wilson’s hand. The rest will live in infamy in Gainesville. Cade York ended up booting a 57-yard field goal, Evan McPherson missed a 51-yarder on the other end, and the Gators’ hopes for a playoff spot came to a crushing end.

The day’s dull slate only added to the drama at The Swamp. Yes, Alabama played and won in a rout, the most interesting takeaway from the game being the trek the seniors made to grab their diplomas afterward. Yes, Coastal Carolina delivered another thriller, Sarah Fuller delivered two historic points and USC reminded the world that, hey, the Pac-12 plays football, too.

But most of the playoff contenders were absent from this weekend’s festivities. Notre Dame and Clemson got a league-sanctioned vacation. Cincinnati, Ohio State and Texas A&M were all canceled by COVID-19. The biggest game on the slate, Miami vs. North Carolina, turned into a blowout. And what were we left with? A shoe.

Don’t try to make sense of any of it. It’s beyond reason. It’s destiny. In this weird, ugly, occasionally disastrous season, this was one thing that felt entirely right. We’re through the looking glass in 2020, when Bo Pelini can coach up a patchwork defense to stifle Florida’s offense, when five-loss LSU can self-impose a bowl ban then play like a real contender for the first time all season, and when a cornerback can toss a shoe and completely change the playoff picture.

Blowouts, record-setters and Twitter burns

• After getting thumped by Iowa 28-7, Wisconsin has now scored just 20 points in its past three games combined. At the heart of the offensive woes is Graham Mertz, who completed 20 of 21 passes (95.2%) with five touchdowns and no picks while averaging nearly 12 yards per throw in his debut, but has since completed just 55% with three touchdowns and five interceptions, averaging a mere 5.4 yards per throw. How ice cold is Mertz right now? This might have been him on the Wisconsin sideline Saturday.

Georgia has been waiting for George Pickens to arrive for two years. After last season’s monster performance in the Sugar Bowl against Baylor (12 catches, 175 yards), fans pegged the sophomore wide receiver for a breakout 2020. Injuries, inconsistency and shaky QB play meant that never materialized. But credit Pickens for emulating another George — Costanza — and always knowing how to leave on a high note. In the Bulldogs’ penultimate game of the regular season, Pickens dominated Missouri with five catches for 126 yards — his second career 100-yard game — and two touchdowns. More than just Pickens, however, JT Daniels looked terrific again, throwing for 299 yards and three TDs in the 49-14 win over Tigers. Assuming Daniels returns for 2021, perhaps the Bulldogs will finally have the QB-WR tandem fans have been dreaming of since Pickens arrived.

Minnesota traveled to Nebraska down more than 30 players on a team that already had one of the worst defenses in the country, and the Gophers came away with a 24-17 win. And if that didn’t mark a low point for Nebraska, Minnesota’s Twitter feed provided a little salt in the wound.

You might be thinking, hey, that sounds familiar. And sure, Nebraska being embarrassed at football is pretty routine. But Minnesota’s Twitter burn was actually a verbatim repetition of what Illinois tweeted — then deleted — after it beat Nebraska on Nov. 21. We applaud Minnesota’s courage to stand behind its words — or, well, Illinois’ words, anyway.

• At the end of October, Iowa and Iowa State were a combined 4-4. Since then, they’re 10-0. So if anyone asks, the best two-loss team in the country is probably somewhere in Iowa.

• In fairness to Utah, Colorado’s Brenden Rice had never returned a punt before, but we’re still going to stick with a pretty simple rule: Don’t ever volunteer to put the ball in the hands of anyone related to Jerry Rice.

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Brenden Rice, son of NFL legend Jerry, takes a punt 81 yards to the house, then follows that up with a 61-yard touchdown for Colorado.

• With just five games under his belt — and he didn’t get a touch in the second half of Saturday’s 56-7 blowout of Akron — it’s going to be hard to put Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson in the conversation as a Heisman finalist, but he’s now over 1,000 yards rushing on the season and his 18 rushing TDs ranks third nationally. That’s four more rush TDs than any other player has had through five games in the past decade.

Heels run wild

A quick Google search suggests that, based on reading between the lines of the movie’s script, Forrest Gump crisscrossed the U.S. five times, running about 15,000 miles, or just shy of what Michael Carter and Javonte Williams did against Miami on Saturday.

OK, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration — and Gump, after all, is an Alabama alum — but how else to put what Carter and Williams did in historical context?

The North Carolina backfield duo actually combined for 544 rushing yards, the most by a pair of teammates in the same game in FBS history, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. (Interestingly, they broke a record set by Buffalo’s tailbacks just two weeks ago.) Carter had 308 carries and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Williams had 236 on 23 carries with three scores. The big game put both runners over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, too. In all, the Tar Heels rushed for 554 yards and finished with 778 total yards, the most ever against a Miami defense.

But it wasn’t just the backs doing damage. Wide receiver Dyami Brown finished with 167 yards, too, making UNC the first ACC team in the past 25 years to have two rushers and a receiver top 150, according per ESPN Stats & Info research.

And the real salt in the wound was QB Sam Howell, who finished with a passing TD, a rushing TD and a receiving TD in the game. After his 1-yard touchdown catch, Howell threw up the U hand signal, then turned it down. Howell, of course, was once a prized recruit for Florida State, and apparently taunting Miami wore off on him, even if he ended up in Chapel Hill.

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North Carolina goes into its bag of tricks at the goal line as Rontavius Groves gets the ball on a reverse and then throws a touchdown pass to QB Sam Howell.

More drama for the Chants

Like all great mullets, it’s what you do in the back half that matters. And so it is that Coastal Carolina gave us another dramatic finish in its win Saturday, erasing a three-point deficit in the game’s final 80 seconds and forcing a fumble on Troy’s last-gasp drive.

A Grayson McCall interceptions set up Troy’s seven-play, 40-yard touchdown drive that gave the Trojans their first lead of the game, but it didn’t last long. McCall completed passes of 27, 16 and 23 on the ensuing drive, and the Chanticleers went 75 yards for the TD in just 45 seconds. Jeffrey Gunter‘s sack of Troy QB Jacob Free knocked the ball loose as the Trojans tried to drive late, and Coastal’s Cinderella story continued for another week.

McCall finished with 378 total yards and four touchdowns, while tailback CJ Marable had 167 and three scores of his own.

Will this latest impressive victory help Coastal move up in the rankings from No. 13? Sadly, the committee missed it while watching the dramatic happenings in Oklahoma State-Baylor.

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Grayson McCall’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Javion Heiligh with less than a minute left, keeps the Chanticleers’ season record perfect.

Heisman Five

It was hardly a banner week for the top contenders, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a reshuffling at the top. Still, the real question is this: Can’t we just split the award up and hand it out to the entire Alabama offense?

1. Alabama QB Mac Jones

Saturday was hardly one for the stat line, but how do you hold a 52-3 win against the QB? Jones was still 24-of-29 for 208 yards — his first game all season averaging fewer than 9 yards per pass. Chalk it up to the Crimson Tide’s game plan. He made no real mistakes, and that’s enough to take over the top spot.

2. Florida QB Kyle Trask

Trask finished with 474 yards and two touchdowns, so it feels wrong to bump him down a spot, but his two picks and a bevy of bad first-half reads were the biggest reason Saturday’s game with LSU was even close. Yes, the bigger throw came from Marco Wilson, but Trask had his worst game of the season against a completely depleted defense. That’s a dagger.

3. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

The ACC tried to do Clemson a favor by not rescheduling a game for Saturday, but the move might have been a major blow to Lawrence’s Heisman candidacy. With the top two contenders turning in less-than-stellar performances Saturday, a big game for Lawrence might’ve served as a nice reminder to voters who the best quarterback in college football really is.

4. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith

Smith’s punt return for a TD was one of the highlights of Alabama’s dominant win over Arkansas, but he didn’t add much on offense as the passing game struggled. This is Smith’s inherent problem in making his case for the Heisman. For him to put up big numbers, he needs Jones to play well, too. All of that opens another door: Should running back Najee Harris be in this discussion, too? Harris scored twice Saturday.

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Alabama’s DeVonta Smith fields the punt and cruises 84 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

5. Notre Dame QB Ian Book

Like Clemson, the Fighting Irish were given the weekend off. Book’s candidacy seems like a long shot at the moment, but if he were to serve Clemson another loss in next weekend’s ACC title game, perhaps he gains a little love from voters. At the very least, he deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Getting to next weekend’s conference title games was a foregone conclusion around most of college football, with the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 matchups already set in stone. So, leave it to the MAC to provide us with some real drama.

Trailing 27-13, Ball State picked off a Western Michigan pass late in the third quarter, turned the takeaway into a touchdown, forced a three-and-out and then scored again. Western Michigan missed a go-ahead field goal try after a 12-play drive of its own, setting up Ball State to take a 30-27 lead on a kick with just 29 seconds to play. And that’s when Western Michigan called for a “The band is on the field!” play, which created the most chaotic ending we’ve seen this season.

On the final play, the Broncos threw a short pass, then began a series of nearly 20 laterals that included, at one point, a fumble Ball State appeared to recover. The Ball State players rushed the field, but Western Michigan came away with the ball, leaving a few random Cardinals who’d wandered into the action left to attempt a tackle. Eventually, it ended up in the hands of Skyy Moore, who bolted down the sideline for a touchdown. Only problem? There was a flag way back at lateral No. 8 or 9. But don’t let a little thing like an illegal forward pass take away from one of the genuinely great moments of the season.

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With time for only one last play, Western Michigan laterals more times than you can count and Ball State rushes the field before the whistle in what appears to be a Broncos touchdown.

Under-the-radar play of the week

If you couldn’t bring yourself to watch both teams’ offense in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game, you might’ve missed one of the best defensive plays of the season from Volunteers defensive back Bryce Thompson, who snagged a one-handed pick, kept his balance and broke a few half-hearted tackle attempts for a touchdown. It was likely the best catch of the season by a Tennessee player.

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Bryce Thompson makes an incredible one-handed interception and returns it 18 yards for a Tennessee touchdown vs. Vanderbilt.

Big bets and bad beats

  • Alabama was a heavy favorite (the game closed at Alabama -30) in its final test before the SEC championship game, but once again, Nick Saban delivered. Perhaps it comes from knowing how Saban feels about rat poison, but the Tide have a long history of delivering the week before a big game. According to research ESPN Stats & Information, Saban is now 24-13 against the spread the week before playing top-10 opponents, including a 15-2 mark when favored by 20 points or more. Alabama has now covered seven straight games, the longest streak of covers in Saban’s illustrious career. Good coaches win. Great ones cover.

  • We’re still a month away from crowing a national champion, but the covers championship looks to be firmly in the hands of Indiana, who finished the regular season 7-0 against the spread. But here’s a big hat tip to San Jose State, which erased a 13-point halftime deficit on Friday and stormed back for an easy cover against Nevada, running its record against the spread to 5-0-1 this season. They’re the last two FBS teams to have covered or pushed in every game this season.

  • The Navy offense has been a mess for much of the season, and the Midshipmen managed nothing against Army. The game ended with a 15-0 victory for the Black Knights, 21 points shy of hitting the total. It’s now been 15 consecutive years that the Army-Navy game has stayed under the total.

  • UCLA lined up for a 43-yard field goal to take the lead with 52 seconds left Saturday, but for Bruins backers, a cover already seemed all but assured. USC was favored by 3.5, and even a missed kick would result in the Trojans simply taking a knee and running out the clock. But Nicholas Barr-Mira made the kick, and it proved a big mistake. As 2020 has shown us, USC thrives when trailing in the final minutes. Kedon Slovis‘ first pass went for 35 yards to the UCLA 8, and one player later, he hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for a touchdown to take a 43-38 lead — and secure the cover.

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