The man can coach.
Jim Harbaugh, who turned around a moribund Stanford program and led the 49ers to within five yards of a Super Bowl title, is working his magic again in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh took over a Michigan program that had gone 35-40 the previous six years and is 15-3 to date, resurrecting the vise-like Michigan defense that was AWOL under predecessors Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.
Saturday, the No. 4 ranked Wolverines beat No. 8 Wisconsin 14-7 in a typical smash mouth Big Ten game that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate (Michigan missed three makeable field goals and Wisconsin’s only score was set up by a long interception return). All signs point to the Nov. 26 Michigan-Ohio State game as a faceoff for the playoffs.
There were two other matchups over the weekend between top 10 teams. One was a blowout, the other a nail-biter.
Washington 44 – Stanford 6: No one saw this coming. What was heralded as “the biggest game of the year in the Pac-12” turned out to be no contest. The 10th-ranked Huskies dominated in the trenches, held Christian McCaffrey to 79 yards from scrimmage and gave No. 7 Stanford its worst shellacking since the iPhone 4.
I’m not sure what was more surprising—the ease with which Washington scored, or Stanford’s inability to move the ball. Much has been made of the fact that Stanford’s two starting cornerbacks missed the game with injuries, but the most critical loss may have been fullback Daniel Marx. Marx is McCaffrey’s lead blocker and also fills a crucial role on pass protection. He was sorely missed.
Clemson 42, Louisville 36: In a thoroughly exciting and entertaining game, Deshaun Watson threw five touchdown passes to lead No. 5 Clemson. No. 3 Louisville scored 26 straight points to get back in the game and came up a yard short of first-down yardage inside the Clemson five in the closing seconds. Both teams remain in the playoff hunt.
Elsewhere: Oregon lost its third straight (51-33 to WSU) and must find a defense very quickly with Washington up next. Colorado (4-1) continued its resurgence under former San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre with a convincing win over Oregon State. USC coach Clay Helton may have averted an early morning meeting with Athletic Director Lynn Swann by beating Arizona State. And No. 22 Nebraska improved to 5-0 with a win over Illinois. The Huskers’ coaches trace their turnaround to an impressive victory over UCLA in last year’s Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.
Cal’s Defense Shines: The much-maligned Cal defense came up big with a last-minute goal-line stand against unbeaten and No. 18 ranked Utah to preserve a 28-23 win. Cal quarterback Davis Webb, the national leader in touchdown passes, added four more and now has 22 in five games. Not surprisingly, a host of 49ers’ scouts were watching Webb from the Memorial Stadium press box.
Where’s Mack? ESPN2 analyst Mack Brown, the former Texas coach, bailed out of Friday night’s BYU-Toledo game with almost 11 minutes remaining and Toledo up 45-42. Apparently, Brown left to catch an early flight so he could make the ESPN studio show Saturday morning in Bristol. Brown missed an amazing finish, as BYU won 55-53 on a last second field goal. He probably wouldn’t have left if it was Oklahoma-Texas.
Heisman watch: It’s still early, but right now the Heisman race is all about quarterbacks.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: You’ll recall that Barrett started most of 2014 as a redshirt freshman after returning Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. All Barrett did was pass for 35 touchdowns, rush for 11 more, and lead the Buckeyes to a 10-1 record before breaking his ankle against Michigan. Last year, he split time with Cardale Jones, who’d led the Buckeyes to the national championship after Barrett went down. This season, with the job all to himself, Barrett has been phenomenal, piloting the No. 2 ranked Buckeyes (4-0) to 57 points per game.
Lamar Jackson, Louisville: Saturday’s loss won’t diminish Jackson’s Heisman chances at all. He brought his team back and was in position to win the game when his receiver was stopped a yard short. Jackson is responsible for 28 TDs in five games—14 passing and 14 running—more than just a handful of teams. Heisman voters have preferred a fresh face in recent years (Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Derrick Henry, etc.), which works in his favor.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson: Watson finished third last year behind winner Henry and Stanford’s McCaffrey. After a great performance in the national championship game vs. Alabama, he went into the season as one of the favorites, along with McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Watson started slowly this year, but his five-touchdown performance vs. Louisville has vaulted him back near the top of the heap.
Rising (with a bullet): Washington’s Jake Browning could get into the mix if the Huskies continue to win and he continues to impress.
Losing ground: The preseason headliners at running back have all lost ground. McCaffrey must compete with his own incredible numbers from last year, when he broke Barry Sanders’ single season all-purpose yardage record and should have won the Heisman. He’ll need some big performances in the coming weeks. Fournette has missed two games because of injury and his coach was fired after four games. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook is also being hurt by his under-achieving team (3-2).
New AP Top 25: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Michigan, 5. Washington, 6. Houston, 7. Louisville, 8. Texas A&M, 9. Tennessee, 10. Miami, 11. Wisconsin, 12. Nebraska, 13. Baylor, 14. Ole Miss, 15. Stanford, 16. Arkansas, 17. North Carolina,
18. Florida, 19. Boise State, 20. Oklahoma, 21. Colorado, 22. West Virginia, 23. Florida State, 24. Utah, 25. Virginia Tech (Cal received three votes)
Gary Cavalli is a 40-year veteran of the Bay Area sports scene and was Executive Director of the Foster Farms Bowl and Sports Information Director/Associate Athletic Director at Stanford