College football powerhouses are running out of time

In the early stages of the season, several prominent teams, spanning from Florida to Nebraska, find themselves in a state of decline. The pressing question remains: can these teams reverse their fortunes before it’s too late?

Forty narratives, encompassing names, games, teams, and various intricacies, are shaping the current landscape of college football. Notably, the stadium lights in Fresno seem to be a hot topic of discussion, available for purchase separately.

As we move into the second quarter of the season, the struggles of some teams are becoming increasingly evident. The pivotal question arises: is there a level of recovery that is deemed satisfactory?

Florida (12) has suffered two disheartening losses, never coming close, despite a remarkable victory over Tennessee. The Gators face adversity as a weak road team, with a discouraging record of 0–2, having been outscored by 32 points. They have trailed by double digits at halftime in both away games. To exacerbate matters, they’ve endured three consecutive defeats against the once-dismissed Kentucky, conceding a staggering 280 rushing yards to a single player, Ray Davis, in their most recent encounter. Their defense has managed to produce just one turnover thus far. This is a far cry from the institution that once claimed national titles through the groundbreaking offenses of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Astonishingly, they have yet to breach the 30-point mark against FBS opponents this year.

The special teams situation is nothing short of chaotic. Second-year coach Billy Napier has Chris Couch, a “GameChanger coordinator” as per the staff roster, whose contributions have been far from game-changing this season. Instead, they’ve tipped the scales in favor of the opposing teams.

Florida’s mishaps have even surpassed those of Notre Dame in terms of fielding the incorrect number of players, including a bewildering instance of 13 defenders on one snap against Kentucky, which still resulted in a Wildcat score. Most of these blunders have unfolded on special teams, where Florida has yet to complete a game without incurring a penalty, a bungled kick, or failing to field enough players. A particularly costly penalty against Kentucky involved a leaping infraction that negated a Wildcats punt and granted them a first down. On the ensuing play, Davis dashed 75 yards for a touchdown, effectively sealing the game at 16–0.

The Gators are pinning their hopes on Napier, aiming for a transformation akin to Texas’ Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian, after inheriting a struggling program, propelled it from a 5–7 record to an 8–5 season in his second year, with a solid quarterback, a formidable defense, and a standout receiver. The third year has proven to be the breakthrough: Texas currently stands at an impressive 5–0, securing the No. 3 spot in the national rankings.

In contrast, Napier faced a more challenging season, finishing at 6–7 last year, and is now grappling with a modest 3–2 record in his second year. There’s a chance to reach 5–2 before the pivotal Cocktail Party game against Georgia, an event that has often haunted the Gators in recent memory. However, this Bulldogs team differs from its predecessors. Following this matchup, a demanding stretch awaits, with games against Arkansas, followed by away fixtures against LSU and Missouri, before concluding the regular season against Florida State.

Napier must chart a course similar to Sarkisian’s, striving for a winning season and leveraging the transfer portal to bolster the team’s talent pool. This effort is complemented by a highly-regarded freshman class for ’24. The undertaking was never positioned as a quick fix, and true to that, it hasn’t been. Year Two is pivotal in setting the stage for a promising Year Three for Napier, as there might not be a Year Four without it.

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After a demoralizing 33–14 defeat at the hands of Kentucky, Napier finds himself in contemplation.

Nebraska (13): The downtrodden Cornhuskers yearn for a taste of postseason action, having been absent from bowl games since 2016. With a 2–3 record and no victories against power-conference rivals, even achieving this modest goal seems like a formidable task.

Yet, the Cornhuskers compete in the sprawling realm of mediocrity known as the Big Ten West, where performances fluctuate unpredictably from week to week. Despite Nebraska’s struggles, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to witness a winning streak in the next four games (against Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, and at Michigan State). Conversely, a losing streak is just as plausible. The truth likely lies somewhere in between, leaving the bowl game aspirations hanging in the balance as they head into a demanding final stretch against Maryland, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

In his inaugural year, Coach Matt Rhule made a quarterback choice that now appears ill-fated. With Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims at the helm, incumbent starter Casey Thompson departed. Currently, Rhule is working with Heinrich Haarberg, a former three-star recruit from 2021 whose scholarship offers were primarily from the lower tiers of FBS. While Haarberg hasn’t performed poorly, the Huskers are in need of an upgrade from “not bad,” which might have to wait until 2024.

Illinois (14): The outcome of the Nebraska-Illinois match on Saturday could hold significant implications for both teams’ bowl game prospects. One of Bret Bielema’s early triumphs as the Illini’s head coach was securing victories over Scott Frost’s Nebraska squad in consecutive seasons, bolstering his credibility in Champaign. However, this season has seen a regression for the Illini, with a 2–3 record and all three losses by double-digit margins.

A loss to Kansas by 11 points? Understandable, considering the Jayhawks’ recent improvement. A defeat to Penn State by 17? Not ideal, but it happens. Yet, a lopsided 44–19 defeat to Purdue is cause for concern.

This year was anticipated to be a minor rebuilding phase for Bielema, who lost four key players to the NFL draft and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters (now the head coach of Purdue). Instead, it’s taking on the characteristics of a substantial reconstruction. Additionally, the Big Ten is poised to become even more competitive next year, with four formidable programs entering the fray.

Pittsburgh (15): Just as it seemed Pat Narduzzi had established a steady winning tradition, the floor seems to have given way beneath the Panthers. Their record stands at a disheartening 1–4, with their lone victory against FCS team, Wofford. Regrettably, each defeat has been more crushing than the last. They followed up a surprising home win against Cincinnati with a painful loss in the Backyard Brawl, then suffered decisive defeats to North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

While quarterback performance was a major concern for weeks, the Virginia Tech game revealed a broader system failure. The Hokies tallied season-highs in points (38) and yards (427) against the Pittsburgh defense. The Panthers’ streak of four consecutive winning seasons now hangs in the balance with several challenging matchups on the horizon.

Three-quarters of the Big 12’s recent additions (16): The optimism surrounding the inclusion of BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, and Houston in the conference hasn’t translated into an immediate upgrade in overall quality. Collectively, they hold a disappointing 1–7 record in conference play, with the lone victory coming from a newcomer-on-newcomer clash: BYU’s win against Cincinnati.

UCF’s most memorable Big 12 moment came in a heartbreaking collapse, surrendering a 28-point second-half lead at home to Baylor. However, they kept hope alive with a jaw-dropping fourth-down conversion by quarterback Timmy McClain. Houston had an opportunity to defeat Texas Tech, but their special teams conceded a 100-yard kickoff return and a blocked punt for a touchdown. The Cougars (4–1) appear to have the best chance of making an impact on the league race.

Indiana (17): Coach Tom Allen turned to the Embattled Coach Playbook on Sunday, dismissing offensive coordinator Walt Bell, whose unit finds itself in questionable company at the bottom of the Big Ten’s total offense statistics alongside Northwestern and Iowa. When you struggle to score 17 points in regulation against Akron and require four overtimes to secure a win, there are underlying issues.

Following a commendable 14–7 record in 2019 and 2020, Indiana believed they had their leader and invested significantly in Allen, including a substantial buyout. However, their record since then stands at 8–21, including a 2–3 showing this year. Competing in the fiercely competitive Big Ten East is undoubtedly a demanding task, but it’s also a place where one can be generously compensated for merely staying competitive. If Allen aims for six or more wins, he may need to secure victories against Rutgers, Illinois, Michigan State, and Purdue to achieve that goal.

Arkansas (18): Much like Bielema’s stint at Illinois, Sam Pittman’s two-year journey was initially marked by affection and hope. Year one saw him lift the program from the doldrums, followed by an impressive 9–4 showing in year two, earning him a lucrative contract extension. However, since then, the Razorbacks have experienced a downturn. Following a promising 3–0 start last season, they ended up at 7–6, and this season, they stand at 2–3, having yet to secure a victory against Power Five opponents.

The annual clash with Texas A&M in Arlington was more of an Aggie-dominated affair this time around. Arkansas’ dynamic duo of quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders has struggled to hit their stride, with Sanders hampered by injuries and Jefferson facing challenges in running productivity. In the fiercely competitive SEC West, even a slight slip can lead to a significant fall. Currently, Arkansas treads on precarious ground.

Oklahoma State (19): South Alabama and Iowa State share a common feat—they both secured victories over an FBS opponent, with the latter being Mike Gundy’s Cowboys. Oklahoma State enters this phase with a 2–2 record, fresh from an open date dedicated to finding solutions.

The Cowboys have tested three quarterbacks, yet they rank at the bottom of the Big 12 in pass efficiency and yards per attempt. Conversely, their pass efficiency defense is the weakest in the Big 12, managing just one interception out of 120 passes thrown against them. Gundy, accustomed to success, holds a 9–8 record since the 2021 season. The question lingers: does he still have the same passion for this role?

San Diego State (20): The Aztecs find themselves in the midst of their first four-game losing streak in half a decade, following a promising 2–0 start. The schedule has been arduous, facing off against formidable opponents like UCLA, Oregon State, Boise State, and an undefeated Air Force. It’s evident that SDSU has slid from its customary position near the top of the Mountain West. Their record stands at 9–10 between last year and the current season. Coach Brady Hoke, not particularly known for his offensive prowess, has an open date to fine-tune the unit before entering a more manageable stretch of games. Since 2009, the Aztecs have avoided a losing season; there’s work to be done to uphold that streak.

Reference:
https://www.si.com/college/2023/10/02/struggling-college-football-powerhouses-salvage-season-florida-nebraska

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