Mack Brown was standing on the sideline at Kenan Stadium in April 2019, watching his new North Carolina football team run through a spring scrimmage. Next to him was Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State coach, in town to speak at a clinic. The two chatted casually, Brown openly wondering what the future might hold for a team he still knew little about after taking over the program just a few months earlier.
“You’re going to be OK,” Meyer interrupted, pointing toward the field. “No. 8 and No. 25 — they’re special.”
No. 8 was tailback Michael Carter, and Meyer’s praise came as little surprise. Carter was the state of Florida’s offensive player of the year as a senior, and he’d already totaled more than 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns in his career before Brown arrived.
But No. 25 — Javonte Williams — was more of a mystery.
ESPN ranked Williams the 53rd-best running back in the Class of 2018. He played sparingly as a freshman in 2018, generally used in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
But Meyer saw something more. Williams could pass block, was quick to hit the hole and showed nice hands out of the backfield. Meyer didn’t see a short-yardage back. He saw the total package.
Two years later, the rest of college football is getting a taste of what Meyer noticed during that spring scrimmage in Chapel Hill — even if most of the country has yet to take notice. Williams, the UNC tailback, might just be the best player in the country no one seems to be watching. But that’s likely to change Saturday when the No. 25 Tar Heels host No. 2 Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN App).
“This is a chance for us to show how good we really are,” said Williams, who leads the nation with 18 touchdowns and ranks fifth with 1,115 yards from scrimmage. “But it’s been so long since I’ve had any recognition that it doesn’t faze me. The only recognition I want is a conference championship.”
Williams, who said his goal entering 2020 was to finish with 10 touchdowns, hit that mark in Carolina’s fifth game. He has finished with more than 100 yards from scrimmage six times this year. He’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry, second best in the nation among backs with at least 70 rushes. His broken tackle rate of 40% is easily the best in the country, nearly four times the national average.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Brown said. “And like all the great ones, he gets better as the game goes on.”
A different kind of rivalry week
This isn’t your typical Thanksgiving weekend. Not every rivalry game is penciled in. (Michigan-Ohio State is in December!) But there’s still plenty to highlight. Here are some of the best.
The Iron Bowl: One of college football’s biggest rivalries doesn’t have as much spice going into the game this year as it has in the past. No. 1 Alabama is favored by more than three touchdowns over No. 22 Auburn, and for good reason. The Tide’s offense has been an unstoppable force, with QB Mac Jones in the thick of the Heisman race and WR DeVonta Smith and RB Najee Harris helping to carry the offensive load after a season-ending injury to WR Jaylen Waddle. For Auburn, QB Bo Nix hasn’t taken the leap that Tigers fans would have hoped for, but the Tigers have won three straight after a 2-2 start.
Gus Malzahn says the Crimson Tide have one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, and Nick Saban is looking to combat Auburn’s overall balance.
Despite the strong likelihood of an Alabama win, this game is worth watching because it’s the Iron Bowl. Anything can happen. Auburn potentially spoiling Alabama’s playoff plans? Now that’s must-see TV.
The Egg Bowl: Our first Egg Bowl between Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach feels like a special treat. Many college football rivalries are deemed as such but don’t have the record to back it up. (Oklahoma is 90-18-7 against Oklahoma State.) The Egg Bowl does — Ole Miss leads 62-46-6. Last year, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pretending to pee like a dog (not a typo) and then a missed extra point decided the game. Rich Rodriguez, Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator last season, told ESPN’s Chris Low and Mark Schlabach, “I remember thinking, ‘Is it going to come down to a kid pretending to pee in the end zone that’s going to cost us our jobs?'” And it did.
Oregon vs. Oregon State: The Ducks are the Pac-12’s best shot at the College Football Playoff, but they will need to start collecting some blowouts over the next few weeks to help build their résumé. And there’s no better way to get that ship sailing than against your rival. The Beavers finished 5-7 last season, and at 1-2 this year, they are a heavy underdog. But with the Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington State) canceled this year, this is your best option for a Pac-12 rivalry game. Unless you’re just a fan of either Stanford or Cal.
UCF vs. USF, and McKenzie Milton’s return: This game is another rivalry that doesn’t have the hype of years past — USF is 0-6 on the season, and UCF is a heavy favorite. But one thing worth watching: McKenzie Milton on the UCF sideline. It has been two years since the tragic knee injury that has left him sidelined since, but he’s finally practicing again and wants to be in uniform for the Knights’ first trip back to USF since his injury. It would also be his first game back in uniform. While he won’t be starting over Dillon Gabriel, or even be second string behind Quadry Jones, he told ESPN’s Andrea Adelson he just wants to have some type of role in the game plan.
UCF QB McKenzie Milton suffered a devastating leg injury in 2018, but he hasn’t let that hinder his determination to play football again.
What else you should watch
A trip to the Big 12 title game is on the line: Iowa State and Texas are facing off in the biggest game either has played up to this point this season. The Cyclones are coming off of a blowout win against Kansas State and have won six straight conference games. The last time they did this (2018), a Texas loss kept them out of the Big 12 title game. Texas has won three in a row after a pair of losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma, but it will have had 20 days since its most recent game by the time this one is played.
2-3 Michigan vs. 0-5 Penn State: Of all the things 2020 has thrown at us, we didn’t expect to see Michigan and Penn State struggle so much. If you’re Michigan, you’re trying to avoid a loss to an 0-5 team (even if it is Penn State). If you’re Penn State, a win would be, uh, nice. A loss to a Michigan team that struggled against Rutgers last week would be like dumping salt in an already massive wound. This game is a matchup between train wrecks you want to turn away from but can’t help but watch.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Maryland vs. Indiana
The Hoosiers are coming off a loss at Ohio State, where they proved they can hang with just about anybody. This week, they’re set to play Maryland, which hasn’t played since Nov. 7. The Terps and QB Taulia Tagovailoa started to come into form before COVID-19 forced the cancellations of their past two games. But they’ll face an Indiana defense that lured Justin Fields into three uncharacteristic interceptions. Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. is coming off the best game of his career, and he could be in store for another big game against an unproven Maryland defense.
Hale: Kent State at Buffalo
Sure, we’re disappointed any time a great bit of MACtion doesn’t happen on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but this is still a game worth prioritizing on a busy Saturday. Nationally, there are 10 teams riding a winning streak of at least six games. Kent State and Buffalo are two of them. The Bulls’ offense is among the nation’s most explosive, having scored 40 or more in seven of its past nine games behind tailback Jaret Patterson. Kent State, meanwhile, is arguably the best turnaround story of the past few years in college football. The Golden Flashes have won seven straight games after winning just seven of their previous 38 before the streak began. The two teams are tied atop the MAC East Division, so the winner of Saturday’s showdown will have the inside track on a conference title shot.
Player to watch
Lyles: Liberty QB Malik Willis
It’s Thanksgiving week, and it seems fitting to pick a player here who is going to be feasting on a defense (UMass) that doesn’t have much of a chance. The Flames are coming off their first loss of the season, in which Willis had his worst game of the year — he completed just 40% of his passes and threw three interceptions. Expect Willis to bounce back against the Minutemen defense.
Hale: Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Slowing down North Carolina’s potent offense is typically a pick-your-poison situation, but the Irish have a secret weapon in Owusu-Koramoah. The versatile linebacker can do a little of everything, from playing physical in the box (8.5 tackles for loss) to getting after the passer (five QB pressures) to covering slot receivers (just 121 yards and no TDs allowed on 21 targets). Good luck figuring out how the Irish will use him from snap to snap Saturday. Owusu-Koramoah’s versatility is a big reason Notre Dame has been so effective both against the run (2.87 yards per carry) and the pass (6 TDs, 5 INTs this year).
Upset pick of the week
Lyles: Penn State over Michigan
The Wolverines aren’t a big favorite over the Nittany Lions because both of these teams have been downright bad. That said, my logic here is plain: Michigan is coming off a week when Rutgers probably should have beat it. And Penn State has to win eventually … right?
Hale: Maryland over Indiana
OK, the Terps don’t have much going for them (though they are 2-1). After missing a week because of virus concerns, it remains to be seen how depleted the roster will be. Moreover, history suggests this is a huge uphill battle. After they pulled massive upsets over Minnesota and Penn State, the odds of a third straight outright win as a double-digit underdog seem absurdly low. As ESPN Stats & Information research indicates, only one other team — Arizona in 2006 — has won three straight games as a double-digit ‘dog. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that history isn’t precedent in unprecedented times, and it’s fair to wonder if there will be a bit of an emotional hangover for Indiana after such a hard-fought loss to Ohio State last week.