Those of us who follow college football, the affliction usually acquired during childhood, might want to discontinue a few habits for this misshapen 2020 season. We should not be drawing conclusions from games we just watched. We should stop evaluating coaches whose games we have just watched. We can resume these pleasures once the world regains enough normalcy that it includes sacred endeavors such as spring practice.
Besides, right about now we should focus on the Ricky Whites of the world — or maybe the most Michigan-Michigan State thing ever.
The most Michigan-Michigan State thing ever was not Michigan State’s 27-24 win at Ann Arbor, but that outcome does deserve a self-correction here. Just last week, certain people got a little looped on Michigan again, as has happened during the six-season Jim Harbaugh tenure. Certain people saw new quarterback Joe Milton’s performance and postgame interview at Minnesota and began premature cooing.
Certain people should have known that, with the probable exceptions of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, no game in 2020 tells as much about the quality of somebody or other as we are all accustomed to the games telling. Everybody has undergone unprecedented upheaval. Consistency and ritual, those pillars of a football program and of the addled brains of football coaches, have gone disrupted. Positive novel coronavirus tests and subsequent contact tracing complicate depth charts. It should be clear we should not behave as we always have.
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Michigan State committed seven turnovers Oct. 24 and lost to Rutgers, 38-27, at home. Michigan State committed zero turnovers Oct. 31 and beat Michigan, 27-24, on the road in a game in which Michigan, importantly, also committed zero turnovers. Such things have several explanations in a normal year but even more this year.
Already we have seen Mississippi State open at LSU, win, 44-34, score 41 points in the closing three quarters, and loose a bunch of assessment. Wow, Mike Leach’s approach to football really will work in the pugnacious SEC. Wow, this looks interesting. Well, Mississippi State has peppered the ensuing 16 quarters with 30 total points in four losses, including a game in which it produced a final score of 2, which always sounds lower than zero in the eccentric arithmetic of football.
Mississippi State defensive end Kobe Jones could have spoken for almost everybody when he told reporters after the 41-0 loss at Alabama, “Right now, I think I would phrase it as ‘under construction.’ ” The rest of us might go ahead and say it’s questionable whether Leach’s approach to football really will work in the pugnacious SEC, but we’re supposed to be learning to refrain from such.
We have seen Kansas State lose, 35-31, at home to Arkansas State and then beat Oklahoma on the way to 4-2. We have seen Iowa State lose, 31-14, at home to Louisiana Lafayette but then beat Oklahoma on the way to 4-2. We have seen North Carolina reach well into the top 10 and then lose at a deeply struggling Florida State, then blast an improving North Carolina State, then lose at a struggling Virginia. We have seen teams such as Virginia Tech riddled with enough coronavirus uncertainty that we might refrain from evaluating them and just let them play. We might do well just to sit around, say, Yeah, that happened, and draw no objective meaning.
And the Pac-12 won’t even start until this weekend.
Certainly it’s perilous to recommend that people spend a season without pillorying coaches. This would deprive certain Americans of the bulk of their normal waking activity. It might be reasonable, though, if we went without a “coaching carousel” this year, which could bring the bonus of relieving us from hearing the dreadful term “coaching carousel.”
If we can state anything about anything, it might be that all the uncertainty plays even further into the advantages of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State by magnifying their mighty depth. On Saturday, Clemson lacked for various reasons 16 players, including mainstay linebacker James Skalski, frightening wide receiver Justyn Ross and projected 2021 NFL draft No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. It trailed 28-10 against a clever and ready Boston College, 28-13 at halftime.
It won the second half 21-0, 209-66 on yards, 6.5-2.2 on yards per play and 3-0 on sacks.
Otherwise, we might spend 2020 relishing that somebody got a moment. White got one Saturday, when the Michigan State wide receiver caught eight passes for 196 yards against Michigan. Might all the flux and uncertainty of 2020 leave a smidgen more space for such breakouts, given that Michigan’s film would have shown only one game in which White caught one pass for five yards?
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“I tend to concentrate, really concentrate, to stay focused, to make plays,” White told reporters on Zoom. After all, look at his recent company. Last year, in a country with 14,000-odd high schools playing football, he placed an excellent No. 227 on the rivals.com overall player ranking. Yet he placed fifth among players from his own team, including two budding marvels from a now-struggling LSU who celebrated White with retweets Saturday night: tight end Arik Gilbert (No. 9 overall) and defensive end BJ Ojulari (No. 123).
That team, Marietta High in the widening tangle around Atlanta, won the top-division Georgia state title this past December. If you have seen high-level high school football in Georgia any year lately, you know the caliber can make you gasp. Maybe non-Ohio State Big Ten football seemed manageable.
But that’s too rash an assessment when we’re supposed to avoid rashness, when we can focus on maybe the most Michigan-Michigan State thing ever.
Within that rivalry burns something found in state after state after state. It’s the intrastate clash between one side seen as “snobbish,” more urbane, more a long-standing kingdom and the other as resentful, more rural, giddier when victory comes. Often, the urbane side has dwelled in the entitlement that comes from extended dominance, as with Michigan’s 71-37-5 lead in this series (but 4-9 in the past 13). It’s all part of how a 13-year-old utterance can prove deathless, as with Michigan running back Mike Hart referring to Michigan State as “little brother.”
On Saturday, a reporter asked Milton about Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons, a senior from Ann Arbor, and Milton, after a loss — after a loss! — said, without being facetious, “Antjuan Simmons, who’s that?”
“I mean, I wasn’t really worried about him. He’s a heck of a player but wasn’t on my radar.”
“I mean, it doesn’t matter,” Simmons said, smiling a lot. “Pauly B’s back with us [a reference to the Paul Bunyan Trophy]. So, I mean, I don’t know what those guys do over there. But we study our opponent. We know who we’re playing against. So I don’t care whether I’m on Joe Milton’s radar or not. You know what I mean? He’s just a quarterback who plays here at Michigan. You know what I’m saying? I’m not worried about what he’s thinking or whatever. I try to, I mean, I watched the tape on him.”
Listening to him, you might feel the long, tortured history of the sport — all the Saturdays, all the states, all the indignities, all of it feeling so refreshingly, momentarily normal.