It has been just 11 months since LSU topped Clemson 42-25 in the College Football Playoff National Championship, completing what might have been the best season by a team in the sport's history. And it already feels ancient.
On Saturday, LSU will stumble toward its 2020 finish line with a makeup date against Alabama that perfectly encapsulates all that has gone wrong for the Tigers in the past 11 months.
This week, head coach Ed Orgeron lamented the latest opt-out of a star player, as wide receiver Terrace Marshall ended his time with the program. Orgeron spoke glowingly of his former players, the stars of 2019, now off to spectacular starts in the NFL. He did his best to add some optimism to a lost season, promising the 3-4 Tigers would "be champions again" at some point.
But when Orgeron was asked whether his team was better equipped today to face Alabama than it would have been three weeks ago, when the game was originally scheduled to be played, his answer felt pretty telling of all that 2020 has wrought for the defending champs.
"Yes," Orgeron said, "because now we have enough players to play the game."
LSU is among the most prominent examples of 2020's misfortunes.
But Orgeron's misery is nothing compared to what has happened at Penn State. The Nittany Lions won their first game of the season last week, but that's hardly enough to forget how inept they looked during an unprecedented 0-5 start. Now, Penn State travels to Rutgers this weekend with more potential embarrassment waiting around every corner.
The team Penn State beat last weekend might be in a worse position. Michigan just canceled its game with Maryland this weekend, COVID-19's intrusion into the Wolverines' locker room the latest problem for embattled coach Jim Harbaugh.
Look around the standings and it's not hard to find programs that ended 2019 on a high note -- Louisville, Baylor, Utah, Tennessee -- that might now be wondering if playing this season was worth all the trouble. And that doesn't even touch on Nebraska. No team has ever pushed harder or argued louder for the right to go 1-4.
Orgeron, for one, refused to blame COVID-19 for the setbacks, but it is fair to wonder whether LSU-Alabama or Tennessee-Florida or Virginia Tech-Clemson might be a whole lot more interesting if everything off the field in 2020 had been -- well, a whole lot less interesting.
"Nobody wants to go through a season like this, but I do believe we're building character and grit that will help us later on," Orgeron said. "You always have to represent LSU with pride, and the standard is very high. We haven't met that. I'm not going to make any excuses for COVID. We've just got to get the job done. We have some good young players. They're just not there yet."
What's worth watching
Can Virginia Tech put up a fight against Clemson? In most years, Clemson's trip to Virginia Tech on Saturday would be circled on the calendar as a huge speed bump for the Tigers and a potential marquee win for the Hokies. Even a month ago, when the Hokies were ranked in the top 20, that might have been the narrative. But Virginia Tech has now lost four of five, Justin Fuente's job security is at an all-time low and the team hosts the Tigers as a 22-point underdog. That's the most a visiting team has been favored by at Lane Stadium since 1988, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That would seem to make this a safe bet for the status quo. But don't be surprised if the Hokies aren't ready to roll over yet.
Coastal Carolina pivots to BYU: This game is a surprise, as Coastal Carolina was originally set to face Liberty, who had to cancel because of coronavirus issues for the Flames. But the Chanticleers found a match in the Cougars, who are looking to improve their playoff positioning. According to FPI, BYU's remaining strength of schedule rank jumped from 98th to 52nd after adding Coastal Carolina. The game will also be the first time two 9-0 or better teams meet during the regular season (not including conference championship games) since 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State (11-0) def. No. 2 Michigan (11-0) 42-39.
Aggies get a road test: Texas A&M needs a win to stay in the playoff hunt, but the job might not be as easy as the records indicate. Auburn has won 12 of its past 13 home games, and Bo Nix is a much different QB at Jordan-Hare (63% completions, 7.3 yards per dropback, 22 TDs and three turnovers) than when he's away (55%, 5.22, 15, 13). An Auburn upset certainly would make the selection committee's life a little easier.
Will Buffalo's Jaret Patterson continue to ascend? Patterson has popped off in the Bulls' past two games. On Nov. 17 against Bowling Green, he rushed for a school-record 301 yards and four touchdowns. And against Kent State this past week, he exploded for 409 yards and eight (no typo) touchdowns. He probably would have had the FBS record of nine touchdowns had head coach Lance Leipold been aware of the position he was in and not taken him out of the game. Regardless, Patterson will be worth keeping up with this week as Buffalo travels to Ohio to play the Bobcats.
Is Jeremy Pruitt in trouble? Given Pruitt has recruited well, and Tennessee's last coaching search should have included the Benny Hill music playing in the background the whole time, it would seem a bit impetuous for the Vols to make a coaching change. But after a strong finish to last season, Pruitt's team has lost five straight, and the offense has found the end zone on just six of its past 53 drives. Life isn't going to get any easier with Florida and Texas A&M remaining, but Pruitt could answer a lot of the doubters by having his team play well against the Gators on Saturday.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Texas vs. Kansas State
My interest in this game has more to do with the consequences if Texas loses. The Longhorns lost to Iowa State last week, and Tom Herman's job status was (understandably) a large topic of conversation. That gets magnified to greater levels if they fall to a 4-5 Kansas State team that has a loss to Arkansas State on the résumé.
Hale: Bowling Green vs. Akron
It's the pillow fight of the year, and we couldn't be more excited. Think of it like a movie so bad, you can't help but watch it -- like "Cats" or "Gigli" or "Titanic" (that's right, I said it). Of the 127 teams to play this year, ESPN's FPI ranks Akron 125th and Bowling Green 126th. (UMass, at 127th, should automatically get to play the loser in a bowl game.)
Over the past three years, the two teams are a combined 7-46 vs. FBS opponents -- and two of those wins are against each other. Their losses, meanwhile, are by an average of 28 points. So putting them on the same field, in a year in which everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, is simply a perfect send-off to 2020, like remaking "The Godfather Part III" and hiring M. Night Shyamalan to write a twist ending for it. None of it was good to begin with, putting them together is worse, and yet, who's going to say no?
Player to watch
The Hoosiers have been one of the season's biggest pleasant surprises, but their story took an unfortunate turn last Saturday when QB Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL against Maryland. Penix is out for the season, and the Hoosiers' season now lies with Tuttle. The redshirt sophomore went 5-of-5 passing for 31 yards in his limited time against the Terps, and will immediately be tested against Wisconsin this weekend.
Hale: Clemson RB Travis Etienne
It's been something of a strange year for Etienne, who returned for his senior season against all expectations and hasn't quite found the room to run he enjoyed in years past.
The yards after contact aren't far off from his career averages, but Etienne is seeing only about half the average yards before contact he has been used to. He has largely made up for the reduced production in the rushing attack by emerging as one of Clemson's most reliable pass-catchers, a feat Dabo Swinney said has only improved Etienne's draft stock. But the fact remains that, if the Tigers want to win another national championship, they're going to need more production on the ground. That, of course, starts with the run blocking, which offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said has shown improvement, but it might also come down to Etienne simply doing more with less. That will start against a Virginia Tech defense that has allowed nearly 1,000 yards and 11 TDs on the ground in its past five games.
Upset of the week
Lyles: Rutgers over Penn State
You might be saying to yourself, "Penn State is 1-5, they have a worse record. This wouldn't be an upset." To which I would say, (A) Vegas says Penn State should win comfortably, and (B) Penn State is still Penn State, and Rutgers is still Rutgers. Penn State's win over Michigan last weekend doesn't mean nearly as much as it usually does. Plus, Rutgers has stayed competitive in most games it has played this season. I'm going with the Scarlet Knights because I don't know when I will ever be able to reasonably pick Rutgers to upset anybody again.
The Cyclones are coming off an emotional, come-from-behind win over Texas. Their path to the Big 12 title game looks pretty clear. Iowa State already has four wins by a TD or less, which isn't typically sustainable. And West Virginia's defense is legitimately good. All of this adds up to a real trap-game scenario, with West Virginia pulling the upset.