College football midseason awards: The best players, teams and moments

NCAAF

We have officially reached the midway point of the 2019 college football regular season, and to commemorate the occasion — before we forget all about what’s happened so far in light of what will happen in the coming weeks — I thought I’d offer out some awards and superlatives.

FAKE AWARDS, REAL VOTES

The 10 teams I have enjoyed following the most this year

Each year, I find myself enjoying specific stories and writing about specific teams more than others. The list tends to change from season to season, but here’s where things currently stand:

  • 1. LSU. The Tigers underwent the change that so many stodgy, talented teams should, and it has paid off handsomely.

  • 2. Slippery Rock. I’ve been following the lower levels of the sport more closely this year, experimenting with an SP+ rating for FCS and Division II in the process. The Rock is unbeaten and has one of the best offenses in D2 — it basically consists of quarterback Roland Rivers III lobbing the ball into open spaces and having talented receivers run underneath the passes for big gains. It’s simple and extremely delightful.

  • 3. Dartmouth. Buddy Teevens’ Big Green have become the poster children for overall player safety and innovation around teaching defense. (They’re the team with the robotic tackling dummy.) They also have maybe the best defense in FCS for the second straight year.

  • 4. Tulane. Willie Fritz has won at the juco level, at Division II, at FCS, and in the Sun Belt. Now he has built a top-40 program at Tulane, and the Green Wave seem to be getting better by the week.

  • 5. SMU. For all the reasons I mention later, in my coach of the year pick.

  • 6. Iowa State. There is an energy to watching Iowa State that you don’t always see, especially in home games. The Cyclones overwhelmed TCU and eventually overwhelmed West Virginia as well. They are a serious Big 12 title game contender.

  • 7. Navy. Remember this team? The option is humming once more, and the defense has rebounded massively under new coordinator Brian Newberry’s control.

  • 8. Sacramento State. Former Eastern Washington assistant coach and Utah offensive coordinator Troy Taylor has engineered an immediate resurrection: The Hornets, 2-8 last season, just won at No. 6 Montana State to move to 4-2. Those two losses? Competitive ones to Fresno State and Arizona State.

  • 9. USC. What can I say? I enjoy thought experiments. “What if you took a frustrated blue blood, convinced it to install an Air Raid offense, and forced it to change QBs every week because of injury?” You get a high-ceiling work in progress and a ton of close games.

  • 10. North Dakota State. Every program is asked to prove the strength of its culture at times, and NDSU, unbeaten and top-ranked with a new head coach (Matt Entz) and freshman quarterback (Trey Lance), might have the strongest culture in the entire sport.

My 10 favorite games of the year

At the end of the year, I will rank the top 100 games of the year. These games might not show up on that list in the same order because these aren’t necessary about best. These are simply the ones I enjoyed watching the most:

Most inexplicable win

South Carolina 20, Georgia 17

I should just name this category the Will Muschamp Award. The average Muschamp season, no matter where he is coaching, tends to consist of at least one mind-numbing loss and at least one “I have no idea how they did that” win.

SP+ gave South Carolina only a 14% chance of beating Georgia between the hedges Saturday, and the Gamecocks’ postgame win expectancy — in which I look at the key predictive stats from a given game, toss them into the air, and say, “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time” – was only 8%. At no point before, during, or after the game did it make sense that South Carolina might win. And South Carolina won.

Most inexplicable blowout win

Maryland 63, Syracuse 20

There are some fun candidates here — Hawaii’s 54-3 win over Nevada, Kansas’ 48-24 win over BC, Georgia State’s 38-30 win over Tennessee (the fourth quarter was a total blowout, at least), or maybe college football’s first 76-5 game (Ohio State over Miami-Ohio) — but since this game, Maryland has gone just 1-3 with an upset loss to Temple, a 59-0 embarrassment at Penn State’s hands, and a strange, 26-point blowout loss to 1-4 Purdue. But the Terrapins still beat Syracuse by 43.

Best crowd pop

There is nothing that brings the goosebumps more than the double crowd pop. Lamical Perine’s game-clincher for Florida against Auburn produced an amazing one.

REAL AWARDS, FAKE VOTES

I am not an awards voter and have never really cared to be (I overthink), but if I were a voter, and if these awards were given out seven weeks into the season, here are the ballots I would cast.

Coach of the year

Sonny Dykes, SMU

Honestly, you could justify giving this award to about half the head coaches in the AAC at the moment. The league has almost caught the ACC in terms of average SP+ rating, and it has taken quite a few rebounds and/or impressive builds for that to happen. Ken Niumatalolo has engineered a strong bounce-back at Navy, Willie Fritz has Tulane in the SP+ top 40 (the Green Wave have finished in the top 40 only once in the past 40 seasons), Luke Fickell has Cincinnati peaking, etc.

We’re going to give this to Dykes, though. The Mustangs are 6-0 for the first time since 1982, when Eric Dickerson and Craig James were lining up in the backfield. They got themselves ranked for the first time since 1986, and despite the letdowns that inevitably pop up, they managed to scramble for a win in their first ranked game since 1986, an overtime comeback over Tulsa.

This is all made more impressive when you remember what happened after 1986: SMU received the NCAA’s death penalty. The Mustangs didn’t field a team in the 1987 and 1988 seasons, and let’s just say the death penalty worked.

The Mustangs didn’t reach a bowl again until June Jones got them to one in 2009, and they still have yet to win more than eight games in a season since 1984.

SMU went 5-7 with a No. 93 SP+ ranking in Dykes’ first season last year, then lost starting quarterback Ben Hicks to transfer. Even after they added Texas transfer Shane Buechele as a replacement, there was only so much reason for optimism. But here we are.

Frank Broyles award (best assistant coach)

Andy Avalos, Oregon defensive coordinator

The top defense in FBS, per SP+, currently belongs to a team that averaged a No. 66 ranking in defensive SP+ over the past five seasons and bottomed out at 106th only three years ago.

Avalos, a former Boise State player and defensive coordinator, replaced Jim Leavitt, who had done a pretty solid job just to get Oregon back into the top 50. He has not wasted time making something truly formidable and exciting in Eugene. Veterans have combined with young recent products of improved recruiting, and the Ducks are in the top 10 in success rate, isolated points per play (my go-to explosiveness measure), and havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays).

Though Oklahoma’s Alex Grinch has received a ton of justifiably good press for turning the Sooners’ defense into a top-30 unit, Avalos should still be at the top of voters’ list for thus far turning Oregon into a top-1 unit.

Heisman (and Maxwell, and Walter Camp, and anything else that goes to the “Most Outstanding Player”)

Actually, let’s be honest: these are almost certainly going to a quarterback. So let’s consolidate this with the next category …

Davey O’Brien, Johnny Unitas, etc. (best quarterback)

Joe Burrow, LSU

Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Ohio State’s Justin Fields are almost equally deserving of this award, and maybe someone will fully separate himself in this race moving forward. But for now, I choose to break what is basically a four-way tie by giving it to the guy with the highest degree of (historic) difficulty.

Stodgy old, defense-and-field-position, manball-dominant LSU currently has the second-best offense in the country, per SP+, and it has gotten there by throwing the football. We’re used to OU’s great QBs, and Alabama and Ohio State have only been a half-step behind the Sooners in that regard, but LSU has been more known in recent years for being dragged down by the QB position. And Burrow’s out here on pace for more than 4,500 passing yards and 50 touchdowns! At LSU! So he gets the nod.

Doak Walker (best running back)

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Thirty-three players have rushed at least 100 times so far in 2019. Of those, 17 have averaged at least 5 yards per carry, and of those, only four have generated at least a 50% success rate (percentage of carries gaining at least 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second, or 100% on third/fourth).

Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins is at 50%, Minnesota’s Rodney Smith and SMU’s Xavier Jones are at 53%, and Taylor towers over the pack at 57%. He could threaten 2,000 yards if Wisconsin plays 14 games, and that’s without playing all that much in second half of games yet.

Fred Biletnikoff (best wide receiver)

Omar Bayless, Arkansas State

This might seem like a hipster curveball, and it probably is, but check this out: 31 players have been targeted at least 55 times so far this year. Of those, only nine have registered a catch rate of 68% or higher, and of those, only three have averaged more than 13 yards per catch: Indiana’s Whop Philyor at 13.5, Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt at 15.5 … and Bayless at 19.2.

Bayless has produced by far the best combination of efficiency and explosiveness this season: He has gained at least 132 receiving yards in five of six games (despite Arkansas State dealing with QB injuries), and he deserves recognition for it.

John Mackey (best tight end)

Jacob Breeland, Oregon

To be honest, there hasn’t been a pantheon-level tight end performance so far, but Breeland has probably produced the best combination of reliability (81% catch rate, 65% success rate), explosiveness (15.6 yards per catch), and pure quantity (fourth-most receptions for a TE). Unfortunately, Breeland left Friday’s win over Colorado with what looked like a pretty bad leg injury. Cross your fingers.

Dave Rimington (best center)

Matt Hennessy, Temple

I’m not going to claim to be a center expert, but Hennessy has long been a favorite of the graders over at Pro Football Focus, and that has continued well into 2019. He doesn’t allow pass pressure, and he has had a large hand in Temple’s run game powering a top-50 success rate.

John Outland (best interior lineman)

James Lynch, Baylor

After last year’s draft run on defensive tackles, we haven’t seen quite as many standout big men. But Lynch has been the engine for a Baylor defense that ranks sixth in rushing SP+ and in the top 10 in front-seven havoc rate. He has recorded 11.5 tackles for loss (third in FBS), seven in just the past two games, and he’s a massive reason why the Bears are surprisingly undefeated.

Chuck Bednarik/Bronko Nagurski/Lott Impact Trophy (best defender)

It’s the same guy you’ll find in the category below …

Ted Hendricks (best defensive end)

Oluwole Betiku Jr., Illinois

Only two defensive linemen have made at least 17 tackles, nine TFLs, seven sacks, and nine run stuffs: Ohio State’s Chase Young and Betiku, a transfer from USC. But Betiku has more tackles, TFLs, and stuffs, and he has made plays with far less talent around him. If Illinois is making a good defensive play, Betiku is probably the reason why.

Dick Butkus (best linebacker)

Evan Weaver, California

My explanation for this one will be short and sweet: At some point in the third or fourth quarter of a given Cal game, you will pause and think to yourself, “Wait, has Weaver made every damn tackle for Cal in this game?” He hasn’t, but it sure seems as if he has.

Jim Thorpe (best defensive back)

Tie: Patrick Surtain and Trevon Diggs, Alabama

I can’t choose between the two. Despite a painfully young front seven, Alabama’s defense still ranks 14th in defensive SP+, and despite a merely OK pass rush, the Crimson Tide are 10th in passing SP+.

Bama opponents have completed only 50% of their passes to the sideline (no matter the depth), with three interceptions, four TDs, and just 11.5 yards per completion. After last season’s title-game breakdowns against Clemson, Surtain and Diggs have done everything they can to prove they’re up to the task this time around. And it’s not too long until they play LSU and we get to find out just how ready they are.

Lou Groza (best kicker)

Brandon Talton, Nevada

Remember the freshman walk-on who beat Purdue with a series of bombs and got a scholarship after the game? He still hasn’t missed a field goal attempt. He’s 12-for-12 overall and 3-for-3 on kicks of longer than 40 yards.

Ray Guy (best punter)

Max Duffy, Kentucky

I explained why last week: “Duffy is averaging 51.2 yards per punt, with a 49.3 net average. We are living in a golden age of punting, friends, and Duffy is our new king.” He didn’t have a great game against Arkansas on Saturday, and his averages are now 50.4 and 47.7, respectively. I’ll forgive him.

Paul Hornung (most versatile player)

Henry Ruggs III, Alabama

Ruggs is averaging 21.9 yards per reception, 28.7 yards per kick return, and, technically, 75 yards per (one) rush. If Nick Saban asked him to pass or play cornerback, he’d probably be awesome at that, too.

And with that, let’s gear up as the season now really begins.

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