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College football pick-six: Is Urban Meyer on the brink? Are Notre Dame and Michigan the wrong types of playoff teams? Will Colorado ever be good again?

Cliched storyline of the week

Back in the early 1950s, the best college football coach in America was a man named Frank Leahy. Leahy, the head coach at Notre Dame, was an offensive savant and a rampant perfectionist, and his record over the course of a decade at Notre Dame (with a respite for World War II in between) was mind-blowing: 87 wins, 11 losses, nine ties and four national championships. But then, in 1953 at halftime of a game against Georgia Tech, Leahy collapsed in the locker room.

It turned out that he was struck with both pancreatitis and nervous tension. But it was so bad at the moment that a priest actually administered Leahy the last rites. He retired at the end of that 1953 season after going 9-0-1, and he never coached again.

And that brings me to this:

What we know is that Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has a cyst on his brain that leads to terrible headaches. What we know is that given Meyer’s suspension earlier this year for his handling of the firing of former assistant Zach Smith, this has been Meyer's most stressful season since he arrived at Ohio State. And what we know is that he quit his last job at Florida because of a pattern of self-destructive anxiety.

Ohio State is an underdog heading into this year’s Michigan game for a reason: The Buckeyes have been clinging to life all year, including during a ridiculous 52-51 win over Maryland last Saturday that felt like a referendum on their playoff unworthiness. Still, it’s not impossible to imagine that the Buckeyes will find a way to beat Michigan at home; it’s not impossible to imagine that Ohio State makes the Playoff, and it’s not even entirely unfathomable to imagine that Meyer even devises a plan to defeat Clemson or Alabama in that Playoff.

Meyer is one of the two greatest coaches of his generation; his career record at Ohio State— 80 wins, nine losses — is nearly identical to Leahy’s at Notre Dame. But there is literally no joy in watching Ohio State at this point. The Buckeyes are a reflection of their coach’s own internal miseries. They are struggling to get by both on a literal and metaphorical level, and it’s going to catch up to Meyer eventually. Let us hope that when that moment arrives, Meyer will have the wisdom to step away in the same way Leahy once did.

Steadily encroaching Playoff watch of the week

Tier 1: Alabama. The best thing that ever happened to Nick Saban was for his team to be tied with The Citadel at halftime last Saturday. It allowed him to legitimize every don’t-look-ahead message that we’ve been mocking him for over the course of the last several years. And then Bama put up 40 in the second half, so the first half hardly mattered.

Tier 2: Clemson. I thought maybe a talented Duke team could hang with the Tigers into the fourth quarter. I was wrong.

Tier 3: Notre Dame, Michigan, Georgia, UCF, Washington State, Oklahoma. Here are some things I am prepared to assert:

A.) Notre Dame is good, and not like a 2012 fake-dead-girlfriend good, but a legitimately physical and fundamentally sound kind of good. That said, it is still possible that USC coach Clay Helton, seeking a Hail Mary to preserve his job, will inspire his talented roster to finally live up to its potential and defeat Notre Dame on Saturday. But probably not. 

B.)  Michigan is also good, and the Wolverines are largely the same kind of good as Notre Dame. So the question for both teams, presuming they make the Playoff, is whether this third-tier level of good — a strategy predicated on wearing down inferior opponents on both sides of the ball— can possibly work against teams like Clemson and Alabama. Color me skeptical on that point. 

C.)  Georgia appears to be on that same tier of good, which makes me think the odds of the Bulldogs somehow upending Alabama in the SEC title game are rather slim this time around. 

D.) UCF is better than you think — a blowout win over Cincinnati proved that — but it won’t matter because the system is going to entirely disregard this team no matter what it does. 

E.)  Washington State is also better than you think, but the perception of the Pac-12 as a weakened conference (true) — and of Mike Leach as a lightweight weirdo who wins with smoke and mirrors (increasingly false) — means that even a win over Washington and a victory in the Pac-12 title game might not be enough to vault the Cougars over more traditional (and more plodding) teams like Notre Dame and Michigan. 

F.)  Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray is ridiculous, and in a way, I think a quarterback like Murray might have the best chance against a team like Alabama, which when it does lose, tends to do so to teams with quarterbacks like Murray.

Tier 4: Ohio State. See above. I really don’t have a clue what’s going on with these dudes right now.

Tier 5: Utah State. Maybe you need a little luck sometimes to go 10-1, but it’s still 10-1.

The Butterburger dude of the week

Remember preseason Heisman Trophy contender Jonathan Taylor, who was supposed to be Wisconsin’s key to a Big Ten West title before a middling Northwestern team blew up the hierarchy? Well, Taylor ran for 321 yards in a triple-overtime win over Purdue:

He also has 714 yards in his past three games. If only running backs on middling teams still won the Heisman every year, Taylor would be a shoo-in.

The week in WTF

A.) Maybe you don’t remember the 1970s when college quarterbacks were generally terrible. But Rutger’s Art Sitkowski is here to remind you:

B.)  It would be nice if Colorado could field a consistently good football team again, if only because those mountain views from Folsom Field are outstanding. And the Buffaloes appeared to be ascendant under coach Mike MacIntyre after winning 10 games in 2016 and starting this season 5-0. It’s rare for the trap door to open this fast under a coach, but after losing six straight following that 5-0 start, McIntyre got canned. And perhaps the best candidate to replace him is hanging around a couple of states to the west. And if you don’t like my choice, keep your snowballs to yourself: 

Cultural recommendation of the week: The Ohio State-Michigan edition

Of the reams of historical information on this rivalry, few are better than Michael Rosenberg’s "War As They Knew It," about the Woody-Bo rivalry of the 1960s and 1970s, and more important, how that rivalry fit into the context of the time.

Your weekly dose of historical context

Five years ago:

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Saturday, 23 February 2019