College football's top midseason award winners, led by Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts

USA Today Sports 2 months ago

The don't hand out Oscars for the best achievements in film halfway through the year. But college football isn't the Academy Awards.

There's been plenty of superlatives through the first seven weeks of the season worth recognizing. Unfortunately, there's also been some negatives worth calling out, too.

We asked our academy of college football experts to weigh in on the highs and lows on the key topics from the first half of the season so that the overachievers and underachievers can be acknowledged. 

So without further ado (drumroll, please), here are the USA TODAY midseason college football awards. Please hold your applause until all the winners have been announced.

Best individual performance

Paul Myerberg: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama — You try to be a contrarian and go against the grain but then you look at the numbers. The 27 touchdowns with just one interception. The 11 yards per attempt. The efficiency rating of 214.3. He’s completing 73.6 percent of his attempts. In the year with no shortage of elite quarterback play, Tagovailoa has been the best of the bunch and better than ever.

George Schroeder: Joe Burrow, LSU — Burrow was hailed a year ago as the graduate transfer who would be the answer to LSU’s long-standing quarterback issues, and he did – but he was more of a game manager than a star. This season, he’s been spectacular. We can talk all we want about LSU’s amazing production since finally committing to 21st-Century offense – but Burrow, who is completing almost 80 percent of his passes, is the undisputed catalyst, and maybe the best offensive player in the country.

Erick Smith: Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma — One of the intriguing questions of the season was how marries of Sooners coach Lincoln Riley and Hurts would go. But in just nine months on campus, Hurts has morphed into the leader of the Heisman Trophy race, while ranking second in the country in passing efficiency and yards per carry. Oh, and he beat Oklahoma's biggest rival, too.  

Eddie Timanus: Joe Burrow, LSU — Sure, that fellow in Tuscaloosa has also been quite good. But Burrow, so far at least, has faced better competition. He was nearly flawless Saturday night on the big stage against Florida, throwing as many touchdowns (three) as incomplete passes

Best coaching direction

Paul Myerberg: Paul Chryst, Wisconsin — One year after Wisconsin experienced a rare flop amid major preseason expectations, Chryst has the Badgers right back in the thick of things in the race for the Big Ten and College Football Playoff. He's done great work with quarterback Jack Coan, who's completing 76.3 percent of his throws, while the Badgers' defense has pitched four shutouts through six games.

George Schroeder: Sonny Dykes, SMU — SMU is 6-0, y’all. We repeat: SMU is 6-0. Congrats to Dykes, who has the Mustangs in position no one saw coming, probably because we haven’t seen it since 1982, which was back in the glory days before the program got the NCAA’s death penalty. 

Erick Smith: James Franklin, Penn State — Franklin could have easily handed the quarterback job to senior Tommy Stevens and nobody would have blinked an eye. But he made it clear there would be a competition, so Stevens left and untested sophomore Sean Clifford took the reins. The Nittany Lions - with Clifford's help and a fierce defense - have run off six consecutive wins and look like the only team in the Big Ten East capable of slowing Ohio State.

Eddie Timanus: Herm Edwards, Arizona State —  Remember when all the so-called experts were shaking their collective heads when this hire was made? Bringing a guy from the TV studio back to the sidelines? It’ll never work. Well, it’s working. The Sun Devils have shown they can win in a defensive slog (Michigan State) or a shootout (Washington State), and they seem to be getting better. Looks like pretty good coaching to me.

Best game

Paul Myerberg: Tulane 38, Houston 31 — This featured the best finish of the season. On the game's final offensive play, Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan hit wide receiver Jalen McCleskey, who pinballed off three Houston defenders and ran into the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown. This came after Willie Fritz faked a kneeldown to set up the game-winning score. The two teams combined for 51 first downs and 1,044 yards of offense.

George Schroeder: UCLA 67, Washington State 63 —This should not be equated to well-played. But for sheer entertainment value, the #Pac12AfterDark insta-classic in which the Bruins came from waaaaaay back to upset the Cougars 67-63 can’t be beat. (UCLA can be beaten, before that game and afterward. But not that night.)

Erick Smith: Pittsburgh 35, Central Florida 34 — The Panthers jumped out to a 21-0 lead before the Knights scored 31 consecutive points and appeared on the verge of adding to their 27-game regular-season win streak. Pitt responded, however, and scored the winning touchdown on a "Pittsburgh Special" trick play with less than a minute left.

Eddie Timanus: UCLA 67, Washington State 63 — It happened in the dead of night, so most of America probably didn’t see it. But this game was the very definition of #Pac12AfterDark. It had a little of everything —big plays, big mistakes, a crazy comeback — well, everything except overtime. Unfortunately it proved to be just a one-off for the Bruins.

Most unexpected success

Paul Myerberg: SMU — The fact that the No. 19 Mustangs are ranked for the first time since 1986 speaks for itself. Add in the fact that SMU has one winning season since 2013 and was picked to finish fourth in the West Division in the league’s preseason poll and you can see why second-year coach Sonny Dykes is on the shortlist for national coach of the year.

George Schroeder: Baylor and Minnesota — Roughly no one predicted that at the halfway point, Baylor would be unbeaten and tied with Oklahoma atop the Big 12 standings. The non-conference schedule was light. The Bears have had some good fortune (see, ahem, that super-bad call in overtime that helped them past Texas Tech). Their Big 12 schedule is backloaded with both Oklahoma and Texas. But consider Matt Rhule’s two-plus seasons: 1-11, 7-6 … 6-0.

Meanwhile, after blowing out Nebraska last week, the Gophers are 6-0, as well. Sure, it has happened against a soft schedule. If they don’t feel like real Big Ten contenders, they’ll get their shot to prove us wrong in a couple of weeks against Penn State. Is it possible the regular-season finale against Wisconsin could decide the Big Ten West?

Erick Smith: Justin Fields — He didn't fit at Georgia in the limited sample size last season. And there were concerns about how quickly he could fit at Ohio State. But that is no longer the case. Showing running and passing skills, Fields is the Heisman candidate that isn't getting enough attention as the Buckeyes look like the No. 1 team.

Eddie Timanus: Minnesota — Four narrow wins to start the season had people wondering if the Golden Gophers were for real. But P.J. Fleck’s rowboat has picked up speed, and the schedule affords the opportunity to be 8-0 heading into a tough November slate.

Biggest disappointment

Paul Myerberg: The ACC — Everyone but Clemson, that is. Pegged as a one-horse show, the league has been even worse than expected. Syracuse has been a disaster. Florida State is once again overmatched. Virginia Tech and Miami (Fla.) have disappointed. The Tigers are the only ACC team ranked in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll, and things may stay that way for the foreseeable future.

George Schroeder: Georgia’s 20-17 loss to South Carolina is inexplicably bad. Oh, and did we mention the Gamecocks were down to their third-team quarterback (on the season-opening depth chart), and that it happened Between the Hedges? Georgia, which was a chic preseason pick to win the national championship, still has all its goals intact. But there’s no remaining margin for error. And that horrendous loss revealed flaws that might well mean more error is ahead.

Erick Smith: Trevor Lawrence — The Clemson quarterback's selection is a product of unreal expectations, rather than awful play. Reports of an injured shoulder make sense when you consider how he has just 11 touchdown passes with six interceptions. Once the Heisman front-runner, he's an afterthought for the award. That said, the Tigers are still unbeaten and have time to round into form for the College Football Playoff.

Eddie Timanus: Texas A&M — Yes, the schedule has been a killer. But the Aggies were never in a position to challenge any of the three highly-rated teams they’ve faced, and in fact nearly lost to a bad one. And things aren’t going to get any easier in the second half.

Biggest upset

Paul Myerberg: Kansas 48, Boston College 24 — “Best” is subjective, since Boston College wouldn’t agree that this game qualifies. And it's not like the Eagles are world-beaters. Still, a Kansas team that's otherwise 0-4 against FBS competition racked up 329 rushing yards and 567 yards of total offense in nailing down the program's first road win against a Power Five opponent since 2008.

George Schroeder: South Carolina 20, Georgia 17 — See “Biggest Disappointment,” and then rotate to view through the prism of the visitors. South Carolina hadn’t been very good, and then they lost quarterback Ryan Hilinski to injury, and then they scored only three points in the final 31, plus two overtime periods – and they somehow notched the biggest victory of Will Muschamp’s tenure.

Erick Smith: Bowling Green 20, Toledo 7 — The Falcons hadn't played within 28 points of their four FCS opponents before facing the Rockets. They had allowed fewer than 35 points in those four losses. Yet, somehow they slowed down the MAC leaders for their first win the series since 2009 and gave a big lift to first-year coach Scot Loeffler.

Eddie Timanus: South Carolina 20, Georgia 17 — The game itself wasn’t pretty, and it was more a case of the Bulldogs losing it. But it was still a huge win for Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks, and it’s been the only result from the first half of the season that altered our perception of the playoff contenders.


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