The College Football Massacre: How 6 Undefeated Teams Lost on 1 Day

10_07_college_football
Mississippi Rebels receiver Vince Sanders scores to tie the game during the second half against Alabama Crimson Tide at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Rebels went on to win in an upset, 23-17. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

"One Mississippi, two Mississippi…."

This week, for the first time in the 80-year history of the Associated Press poll, it was at least conceivable that a voter might have emulated the old sandlot football method of pass rushing when compiling his ballot. Last Saturday Mississippi and Mississippi State, each playing at home, highlighted the most remarkable college football weekend in memory by toppling No. 3 Alabama and No. 5 Texas A&M, respectively.

That no AP voter actually did this—two voters registered the Bulldogs (5-0) as No. 1 and the Rebels (5-0) at No. 5—was about the only letdown of the weekend. That's letdown, not upset. Because upsets were everywhere.

How does one wrap his or her mind around the past weekend, one in which six undefeated teams lost? One in which a seventh, Notre Dame, preserved its perfect season by converting a fourth-and-11 pass in driving rain vs. the nation's No. 1 scoring defense, Stanford? One in which Arizona State overcame a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes at Southern California, winning the game as time expired on 46-yard "Jael Mary" pass to a virtually uncovered wide receiver, Jaelen Strong? One in which Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday throws for an NCAA-record 734 yards and six touchdowns and yet the Cougars lose, 60-59, when a field goal attempted from a closer distance than a point after sails wide right? One in which—do you need a timeout to catch your breath?—Heisman front-runner Todd Gurley, a running back at Georgia, throws a 50-yard touchdown pass left-handed. We knew he was from the South, but who knew he was a southpaw?

For us college football fans, it was almost too much to comprehend and make sense of, as if someone asked us to take the MCAT while playing beer pong. But I'll try. Stay with me:

—Before ESPN's much-loved College GameDay even kicked off from the Grove at Ole Miss at 9 a.m. on Saturday, it had already been a weekend of upheaval. On Thursday night unbeaten and No. 2 Oregon hosted unbeaten and unranked Arizona in Eugene. The Wildcats, 24-point underdogs, scored a 31-24 victory.

With the score knotted 24-24 late in the fourth quarter, Arizona converted a third-and-20 on a run play between the tackles. Three plays later the Ducks' Tony Washington sacked Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon for a nine-yard loss on third-and-goal from the eight-yard line, but Washington then sped toward midfield and performed a martial arts bow. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, the Wildcats were given a new set of downs, and three plays later scored the game-winning touchdown.

Down goes Oregon.

One night later in Provo, Utah, undefeated and No. 18 Brigham Young hosted Utah State, who were 23-point underdogs. Late in the first half the Cougars' sleeper Heisman choice, quarterback Taysom Hill, suffered a fractured left leg on a running play. The Aggies, who were playing their own backup quarterback due to injury, won 35-20.

Down goes BYU.

—And thus by the time College GameDay, making its maiden voyage to one of college football's most hallowed tailgating spots, the Grove, aired last Saturday morning, a sense of upheaval permeated the sport. Each Saturday GameDay invites a "celebrity guest picker" to help its panel choose the winners for the upcoming games, but in truth the guests are rarely major celebrities.

Last Saturday, however, ESPN enlisted the assistance of pop star Katy Perry, who was between tour stops in Dallas and Memphis and boasts 57 million followers on Twitter. Perry, unlike most of the weekend's unbeatens, brought her A-game, making astute picks and even issuing a shout-out to Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight ("Call me," Perry said, invoking the words of at least two other musical divas, Debbie Harry and Carly Rae Jepsen).

After Perry issued that invitation, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit chuckled and said, "His life will never be the same."

And Herbstreit was right. Later that afternoon No. 4 Oklahoma, also unbeaten, lost 37-33 at TCU.

Down go the Sooners.

—Six of the seven schools in the Southeastern Conference's West division were ranked in the top 15 in the AP poll entering last weekend. In other words, 40 percent of the nation's top 15 teams resided in the SEC West, and the seventh team, Arkansas, is every bit as good as most of them.

The SEC West will be a war of attrition all autumn, and it is near impossible that any one team will remain undefeated. It is actually more likely that two SEC West teams will be included in the inaugural four-team playoff come January. Saturday was the first major skirmish, as three games paired six teams with a total of one loss: Alabama at Mississippi, Texas A&M at Mississippi State and LSU (who had lost to Mississippi State two weeks earlier) at Auburn.

The Rebels scored the biggest victory, shocking perennial leviathan Alabama by scoring 13 unanswered fourth-quarter points to defeat the Crimson Tide, 23-17, in Oxford. If there was a signature play, it was a bull rush by sophomore defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who two years ago was the most coveted high school recruit in the nation (which normally translates to, "Signs with Alabama"), in which he pancaked a Crimson Tide offensive lineman.

That night someone took a Vine of Ms. Perry downing a beer and a shot from atop a bar in Oxford, and then leaping into the crowd ("Baby, you're a firework/Come on, show 'em what you're worth"). It was an emphatic symbol of what we can expect from the SEC West the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, down the road in Starkville, Mississippi State undressed the No. 6 Aggies behind the play of quarterback Dak Prescott. It was 41-17 after three quarters. That night in Auburn, Alabama, the unbeaten Auburn Tigers rocked LSU, 41-7, to remain unbeaten.

Still, down goes Alabama and Texas A&M. And expect more of the same each Saturday from the SEC West.

—In South Bend, Indiana, No. 9 Notre Dame hosted No. 14 Stanford in a battle between two institutions who are both also ranked in the top 20, academically (and don't mind reminding people of that). The Irish entered unbeaten but one-loss Stanford was the favorite, boasting the country's stingiest scoring defense.

"Who have [Notre Dame] played?" asked ESPN's Mark May, who is renowned or notorious (depending on your viewpoint) for questioning the Irish's bona fides. He was not alone. Earlier in the week Rolling Stone ran a column in which the subhed posited the following: "The Fighting Irish are undefeated and ranked ninth in the nation...but are they any good?" The author, Michael Weinreb, pointed to the team's to-date weak schedule, which was true (ranked 52nd), though fellow unbeatens Baylor (104th), TCU (76th), Georgia Tech (86th) and Marshall (165th) had even easier paths.

Where Notre Dame football undoubtedly ranks No. 1, though, is in page views. What devoted Rolling Stone reader searching for the latest Maroon 5 set-list was going to click on a story about Marshall unless it was followed by Mathers?

The Irish prevailed against the Cardinals, on this fourth-and-11 touchdown pass ("Here! Here! He's open!") with 61 seconds remaining. Is Notre Dame any good? We should learn more when it visits No. 1 Florida State on October 18. Meanwhile, college football expert Phil Steele notes that, overall, the Irish have the nation's toughest schedule in 2014.

—By this point it was 7:30 on the East Coast on Saturday. Already five unbeatens had fallen while a sixth needed a fourth-down completion to preserve its unbeaten status. What could top that? Come with me to East Lansing, Michigan, where unbeaten Nebraska (5-0) was visiting once-defeated, albeit at Oregon, Michigan State. Despite the loss, the Spartans entered with a higher ranking (10 to the Cornhuskers' 19) and through three quarters played as such.

It was 27-3, Sparty, entering the fourth quarter of ABC's nationally televised game and play-by-play host Chris Fowler, who 12 hours earlier had been hosting GameDay in Oxford, must have wondered why he had ever left the Magnolia State. But then Nebraska rallied, and suddenly it was 27-22. More than three minutes still remained and the Huskers were on a march toward a go-ahead touchdown. Alas, Nebraska QB Tommie Armstrong threw an interception. Michigan State held on to win, seemingly preserving the status quo but overlooking the fact that yet another unbeaten had been humbled.

Down goes Nebraska.

—While the Cornhuskers nearly erased a 24-point deficit in the final quarter, Arizona State overcame a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes behind backup quarterback Mike Bercovici. When the Sun Devils, who had squandered all three of their timeouts in the third quarter, were unable to recover an onsides kick late in the game after a touchdown brought them to within 34-32, matters looked bleak.

The Trojans, however, were unable to run out the clock and punted the ball back to ASU with 0:23 remaining. The problem, though, is that they took possession with the football at their own 28 (USC might have pinned the Sun Devils deeper into their own territory, but first-year Trojan coach Steve Sarkisian had quarterback Cody Kessler quick-punt the ball on fourth down and it only traveled 18 yards).

The Sun Devils should have been dead, but USC played the role of James Bond villain who prefers an elaborate means of execution instead of simply offing 007. And here, too, it failed, as Arizona State had one final chance with :07 remaining from the Trojan 46. Would ASU, trailing by two, attempt a 20-yard sideline pass so as to then attempt a field goal?

Perhaps USC, which chose not to call a timeout before the game's final play, suspected as much. Instead, ASU launched a Hail Mary pass that Jaelen Strong caught (hence: "Jael Mary"), uncontested, for the game-winner. Keep an eye on the Trojans' inside linebacker, Hayes Pullard (No. 10), as he stands at the goal line waiting to field Bercovici's pass as if it were a punt.

Finally, it's worth noting that the Trojans' top defensive back, Josh Shaw, might have made a difference on this play. Shaw, though, has been suspended indefinitely this season following his mysterious balcony leap last August, a stunt about which he lied to USC administrators.

Down goes USC who, though not unbeaten, were ranked No. 16.

—By this time it was nearing midnight on the East Coast. College football had given us more than we could ever ask for, and somewhere perhaps Katy Perry was offering words of commiseration to Trevor Knight as her tour bus wended its way up Interstate 55 toward Memphis for the following evening's concert.

But no, college football opted to host after-parties on the West Coast, both in Pasadena and Pullman, Wash. At the Rose Bowl yet another unbeaten, UCLA (4-0, No. 8) hosted Utah, whose sole defeat had come by one point to Washington State. The Utes hounded Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley, sacking him 10 times in between the times he found open receivers for 93- and 40-yard touchdown tosses that the ESPN announcers, sticking to their script, dutifully referred to as "Heisman moments."

As the clock wound down, though, UCLA found itself in a similar position that Arizona State had an hour or so earlier crosstown: trailing by two and in possession of the ball near midfield with 0:07 remaining. The Bruins opted for a short pass instead of a Hail Mary, which afforded kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn a shot at a 59-yard field goal for the win.

Fairbairn missed, but an extremely dubious flag was thrown on a Ute defender for running into the kicker (it appeared more as if Fairbairn stepped toward him). The Bruins were given a mulligan, but from 54 yards out Fairbairn's try barely sailed wide right.

Down go the Bruins, the seventh and final team to fall this weekend.

Finally, we arrive in Pullman. There, the country's two most prolific passers, Washington State's Connor Halliday and California's Jared Goff, staged—again, depending on your perspective—the most epic or most obscene passing display the game has ever seen.

Let's go to the numbers first. Between them Halliday (49 of 70, 734 yards, 6 TDs) and Goff (37 of 53, 527 yards, 5 TDs) attempted 123 passes and perhaps the most incredible aspect of the aforementioned statistics is that not a single one of them was intercepted. Cal won, 60-59, after Washington State coach Mike Leach, on third down, played it conservative and went for the game-winning 19-yard field goal with 0:19 remaining.

It missed, and it served Leach right for taking the ball out of Halliday's hands at the end of an extraordinary performance. Halliday must face Stanford—remember them, the school that still has the nation's No. 1 scoring defense—on Friday night on only five days' rest. Ice that arm, kid.

Meanwhile, Cal, which would still be undefeated had it not surrendered a Hail Mary pass to Arizona (which remains undefeated and went from unranked to No. 10 on Sunday in the AP Poll) two weeks ago, has now allowed 160 points in its last three games—and won two of them.

None of this makes any sense. Which is what made last Saturday so wonderful. College football.

Down goes the expected. Up goes our capacity to be left in awe.