Somewhere in an alternative college football universe on Saturday, Louisville won a statement game for the Big 12.
Lamar Jackson made Big 12 fans remember Vince Young and Robert Griffin III. Louisville's second-chance transfers Devonte Fields (once the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year) and Josh Harvey-Clemons showed it's actually possible to play defense in the Big 12. The Cardinals looked like one more Big 12 option to make the playoffs.
Oh to dream. In the real world Saturday, Louisville continued to make the Big 12 look silly for passing on the Cardinals as a member in 2011, and Oklahoma got destroyed by Ohio State 45-24 at home in a game the Big 12 badly needed for its reputation and playoff hopes.
Louisville 63, Florida State 20. It's a score that could reverberate all season. Now Clemson-Louisville on Oct. 1, not Clemson-Florida State on Oct. 29, looks like the ACC's huge game of the year.
Houston, the latest rising team the Big 12 might pass on, got a mixed bag with Saturday's results since the Cougars want Louisville and Oklahoma to be as strong as possible. Houston's Nov. 17 game at Louisville looms as possibly a huge matchup, but the luster of the Cougars' Week 1 win over Oklahoma is diminishing. The Sooners could start 1-4 since they have upcoming games against TCU and Texas.
Louisville 63, Florida State 20. It's a score that makes Bobby Petrino's return to Louisville look like a stroke of genius. Putting aside Petrino's personal failings and the fact he left Louisville with discipline problems after his first stint, he's still one of the best offensive coaches in football. Now he has a unique talent who looks like the quarterback (Michael Vick) Petrino expected to coach with the Atlanta Falcons.
Lamar Jackson 5x better than what I was at V-Tech....Enough said!! #future— Mike Vick (@MikeVick) September 17, 2016
Louisville 63, Florida State 20. It's a score that proves Jackson wasn't just feasting on bad defenses. He had another huge game, totaling 362 yards of offense and five more touchdowns. Jackson has 18 passing/rushing touchdowns, the most through three weeks by an FBS player over the past 20 years. Hawaii's Colt Brennan (2007), Tulsa's David Johnson (2008) and Baylor's Seth Russell (2015) each started seasons with 16 touchdowns.
Jackson told reporters he graded his game against Florida State as a D because of one interception and seven incompletions. Note to self: Make sure Lamar Jackson never grades me at anything I do in life. Jackson will still have to hold up physically. If he does, Petrino may have a special year.
Louisville joins Baylor (2013) as the only FBS teams to score 60 points in their first three games to start a season, according to ESPN. That Baylor team started with 60+ for four straight games against Wofford, Buffalo, Louisiana-Monroe and West Virginia and finished with an 11-2 record. Louisville would break Baylor's record if it somehow scores 60+ points the next two weeks against both Marshall and Clemson.
Louisville 63, Florida State 20. It's a score that shows Louisville can actually play some defense. Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois got beat up and completed only 7-of-18 passes for 101 yards, and Louisville limited Dalvin Cook to 54 yards on 16 carries.
But perhaps more than anything, Louisville 63, Florida State 20 symbolizes the short-sightedness of the Big 12 five years ago. Louisville and West Virginia battled politically to get a Big 12 invite, using U.S. senators to lobby on their behalf.
"If a United States senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made, then I believe that there should be an investigation in the U.S. Senate, and I will fight to get the truth," West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III said in 2011. "West Virginians and the American people deserve to know exactly what is going on and whether politics is interfering with our college sports."
Of course politics interfered with college sports. West Virginia won a spot in the Big 12. Louisville is better off in the ACC as the Big 12 remains unstable for the long term. Since 2012, Louisville has a 43-12 record and West Virginia is 28-25. Think the Big 12 might want a do-over?
Now the Big 12's defending champion, Oklahoma, is essentially out of the playoff race with a 1-2 record. Three other supposed quality Big 12 teams -- TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas -- each have one loss and no more high-profile nonconference games left. Texas, which was supposedly back, lost to Cal for the second straight season. That's not back.
The Big 12 has won 59 percent of its nonconference games through three weeks. That's easily the worst among the Power Five conferences compared to the Big Ten (79 percent), SEC (75 percent), ACC (71 percent) and Pac-12 (71 percent). How depressing it must be to be a Big 12 fan. Your conference's playoff hopes look dead before the first day of fall. The only thing still interesting in the Big 12 is its latest expansion fiasco, which could have been avoided by picking Louisville five years ago.
Now the Big 12's defending champion, Oklahoma, is essentially out of the playoff race with a 1-2 record. Two other quality Big 12 teams -- TCU and Oklahoma State -- each have a loss and no more high-profile, nonconference games left. Even Texas, which was undefeated pending its result against Cal, got dinged Saturday when its best win (Notre Dame) lost at home to Michigan State.
"Boy, I was very frustrated, for example, that we let Louisville get away and we let other schools get away," Oklahoma president David Boren told the Tulsa World in January. "We had opportunities at one time several years ago before all these schools gave up their rights, their legal rights and their financial rights, we had a real opportunity, I think back then, to even snag some of the bigger-name programs in the country, and we let the opportunity pass us by -- in spite of some of us expressing our frustrations."
In an alternative universe, Louisville 63, Florida State 20 is a Big 12 score. In reality, it's the first eye-opening score of the playoff race in 2016 and represents both what might have been for the Big 12 and what could be for Louisville.
It's your loss, Big 12.
What we learned
1. Stop scheduling North Dakota State. Everyone in the FBS knows this by now, but they can't help themselves. After edging Iowa 23-21 on Saturday, North Dakota State picked up its sixth straight win over an FBS team since 2010 while collecting a total of $2.175 million. Iowa added to the pot with $500,000 to North Dakota State, whose former athletic director, Gene Taylor, is now Iowa's No. 2 athletic administrator.
Impressively, North Dakota State dominated Iowa at its own game. Rushing yards: North Dakota State 239 (4.9 yards per carry), Iowa 34 (1.4 yards per carry). But the Bison's win shouldn't be surprising. They're in the midst of a dynasty with a 74-5 record and five straight FCS championships over the past five seasons. North Dakota State will deservedly receive top-25 votes on Sunday since FCS teams are eligible for the AP Top 25 poll.
I asked Taylor why FBS schools keep playing the Bison. "I still think Power Five teams feel they should have a chance to win," Taylor said Saturday after he was on the winning/losing end of a game he scheduled for North Dakota State in 2011. "They think, 'I can pay $500,000 to $700,000 and they'll bring a lot of fans, like about 10,000 NDSU fans today, and we'll likely win, or play a non-Power Five FBS school and pay $1 [million] to $2 million."
The days of Big Ten teams scheduling FCS opponents are coming to an end. North Dakota State doesn't have an FBS opponent on its schedule again until Oregon in 2020. The truth is the Bison aren't a traditional FCS team and it will be a shame if they can't get these games moving forward.
"It's not going to be easy getting these games in the future," Taylor said. "I'm sure if ADs take [NDSU athlete director] Matt Larsen's calls, they'll walk down the hall and say, 'Hey, coach, what do you think about playing North Dakota State?' Want to guess what that answer will be?"
2. Big Ten is playing at an elite level. It's still early. But the "eye test" suggests this may be the best the Big Ten in a long time. On Saturday, Ohio State routed Oklahoma on the road, Michigan State won at Notre Dame, Nebraska edged Oregon, and Michigan beat Colorado. Earlier this year, Wisconsin beat LSU.
Ohio State's hiring of Urban Meyer raised the bar for other Big Ten teams in the way Nick Saban once raised the stakes in the SEC. Consider this: Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska have a combined 17-10 record against Power Five teams since 2014. Those same five schools went 12-19 vs. the Power Five from 2011-13.
On Saturday, Michigan State held the ball for 16 more minutes than Notre Dame as quarterback Tyler O'Connor won another big road game following his win at Ohio State in 2015. Sparty isn't going away. The Big Ten East isn't only Urban Meyer vs. Jim Harbaugh. Still, the Buckeyes' young defense looks really impressive. With J.T. Barrett throwing to Noah Brown and so many playmakers, it's scary how good the Buckeyes could be late in the season. They'll need to keep improving given their division.
3. Nebraska gains an identity, Oregon loses one. Mike Riley finally got the duck off his back. Riley lost seven straight games to Oregon while at Oregon State before Nebraska beat the Ducks 35-32. You can't underestimate how good this win feels for Riley.
Just as importantly, Nebraska is learning to win tight games. Tommy Armstrong Jr. completed a fourth-and-9 pass on a bold call by Riley to keep the winning drive alive instead of punting. Last year, the Cornhuskers were 0-5 in games decided by five points or less before edging Michigan State late in the year. Now they have a tight win over Oregon.
Oregon continues to lose its identity. Who are the Ducks? Mark Helfrich gave away points by going 1-for-5 on two-point conversions. Oregon's streak of 82 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass got snapped. Yes, Royce Freeman's injury clearly hurt the Ducks. But something is clearly missing right now at Oregon.
4. Florida vs. Tennessee may be UGLY. For the second time in three weeks, the Vols had a pretty uninspiring win over an inferior opponent by beating Ohio 28-19. There was worse news, though. "We're decimated right now with injuries," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton is out for a while. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin went down with a shoulder injury but may return next week. Tennessee sat out linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., defensive end LaTroy Lewis and wide receiver Josh Smith. Meanwhile, Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio is likely out with a knee injury, leaving Jim McElwain's offense only not-so-good options at quarterback vs. the Vols.
Don't look now, but Jacob Eason just had his welcome-to-the-SEC moment. Eason led Georgia 80 yards and tossed a gorgeous fourth-and-10 touchdown pass in the final two minutes for a 28-27 win over Missouri. As Florida, Tennessee and Georgia start playing each other, the SEC East figures to be wildly entertaining among three flawed teams.
5. Something is wrong with Florida State's defense. Yes, injured safety Derwin James was missed. Sure, Petrino and Jackson are going to make a lot of defenses look silly this season. But there are deeper questions that Florida State's defense needs to answer.
Why do the defensive players so often end up out of position? Why are they constantly falling behind early? Why did they look so confused in the first half against Ole Miss and all day against Louisville? Why did their body language Saturday suggest they were quitting?
"I don't want to experience this ever again," Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker told the media. "You will never see somebody out-hustle, run to the ball, lead, out-work me from now on. ... I promise, I promise, 'Nole Nation, I promise you you're going to see a different team. A different identity. God bless."
Score of the day
Louisville 63, Florida State 20. This score will never stop looking remarkable. Early in the fourth quarter, Louisville led 63-10 before having mercy. The 43-point margin of victory tied for the third-largest ever over a top-two team. The biggest was Army beating Notre Dame by 48 points in 1945. Minus star James, Florida State allowed the most points in school history and suffered its fourth most lopsided loss ever.
Stats of the day
Alabama won after trailing by 21 or more points for the first time since 1989, when the Crimson Tide erased a 21-0 deficit to Ole Miss and won 62-27. Alabama trailed Ole Miss 24-3 on Saturday but didn't panic, unlike the Rebels, who are turning second-half collapses into an art. Ole Miss still doesn't have a real running game to nurse big leads and keep its defense fresh. The Rebels became only the third FBS team to lose two 21-point lead in the same season in the past 10 years, joining Temple (2013) and Idaho (2015). This season could turn ugly for Ole Miss.
Auburn set a school record by losing its sixth straight SEC home game. The Tigers, just three years removed from nearly winning the national title, haven't won an SEC game at Jordan-Hare Stadium since beating South Carolina on Oct. 25, 2014. Gus Malzahn has lost 10 of his past 12 SEC games. This could be a long, long fall for Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs as an anxious fan base grows restless.
What was he thinking?
Repeat after me, Ahmaad Harris: kneel, then toss. Harris, South Carolina State's kick returner, will never forget that lesson after he failed to take a knee when fielding a kickoff against Clemson. Harris thought the play was over so he tossed the ball to a surprised official, who moved away since it was a live ball. Clemson recovered in the end zone for one of the strangest touchdowns you'll ever see.
Quote of the week
"Although the band's halftime shows are entirely the members' projects with no prior review by the university administration, we regret any offense, particularly if Baylor fans may have felt unwelcome in our stadium." -- Rice statement after its band used a formation Friday with the Roman numeral IX to represent Title IX, the federal law Baylor is accused of violating during its sexual assault scandal. Rice said the band did not intend to make light of sexual assault and was "satirizing the actions or inactions of the Baylor administration."