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Seven-Step Drop: Can Anybody Stop the Alabama Machine?

Seven-Step Drop: Can Anybody Stop the Alabama Machine?

Seven-Step Drop: Can Anybody Stop the Alabama Machine?

In the aftermath of Alabama’s suffocating 29-0 win over LSU, you could already hear the collective sign coming from across college football.

Here. we. go. again.

If it was not apparent before this weekend in the sport, it feels more certain than ever that the long slog of the season is now nothing more than a mere formality to crowning the Crimson Tide as champions once again. Especially so in the wake of events in Baton Rouge.

It wasn’t enough for the Crimson Tide to be one of the biggest road favorites ever on the road at the then-No. 3 program in the country and cover comfortably. No, Nick Saban’s crew would have none of that nonsense. Expectations were not only met in the second quarter but the dominance displayed on both lines of scrimmage, in the passing game and on defense will lead to even more talk of this being the best team in school history — and maybe the sport itself.

We’re still a long ways from those comparisons to 2004 USC, 2001 Miami, 1995 Nebraska or, reaching way back, 1956 Oklahoma. Those conversations will need to be saved for late January even if they are in the back of everybody’s minds this week. Until then though, even as unstoppable as Alabama has looked in 2018, does anybody have a shot at stopping the terminator from Tuscaloosa?

Let’s take a look at all the contenders and where they have a chance to make a dint in the Tide... and where there are areas of concern for the opponents in potential games down the road.

Auburn

Say what you want about the Tigers this season, but all bets are generally off in a rivalry game and that’s especially true of one like the Iron Bowl. Jarrett Stidham has not been great when he’s had pressure in his face but if he can get a clean pocket (no easy task with Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs coming after you), he can make throws down the field to beat you unlike Joe Burrow and LSU.

What remains an open question is if Auburn can actually run the football, something Gus Malzahn’s entire offense is predicated on. They had just 19 rushing yards against Texas A&M on Saturday and have really only found success against a bad Ole Miss defense. It would be a stretch to think the Tigers can magically flip a switch and be able to run on the Tide but rivalry games are funny and sometimes produce results outside the norm.

Defensively is where Auburn may have a chance in particular, having not given up more than 24 points all season. If the defense can maybe force a turnover or two and shorten the ball game a bit, things might get interesting in the second half at the end of the month.

Let’s face it though, there’s not a ton of faith in this team getting it done based on what we’ve seen so far and with the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa against a revenge-minded Alabama team. You can’t completely rule it out, but everybody outside of the state is penciling in a win for the home team in this matchup.

Georgia

The Bulldogs will have an opportunity to get their shot at revenge at the site where they very nearly knocked off the Tide at the beginning of the year. This has been a team that has not hit their stride so far this season but it’s also one that does not appear as good as last year’s edition either. Those veteran leaders like Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel who were leading the way in Atlanta in January are now on NFL sidelines after all.

Still, Kirby Smart knows his old boss well and that is at least one area that could give the red and black hope. And let’s face it, this is also one of the few rosters that have enough blue-chip talent to go head-to-head with the Tide as well.

The one wild card might be Justin Fields, the former five-star QB who was worked in more and more against Kentucky on Saturday. Jake Fromm has a 17:4 TD-to-INT ratio but his play has been erratic at times under center and the poised young freshman has not made the leap as a sophomore. Perhaps offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can come up with some packages for both of his signal-callers to play to their strong suits down in Atlanta but both will need rapid progress between now and Dec. 1.

What is different this time around is Georgia’s ability to throw playmakers against Alabama’s back seven. Elijah Holyfield is a load between the tackles and D’Andre Swift is getting better with each passing week as the home-run threat. Add in a receiving corps that is deep and filled with guys who occupy different roles and nobody aside from Clemson has the kind of Jimmy’s and Joe’s that the Bulldogs can throw at Alabama.

Will it be enough? The last time these two met in the SEC Championship Game they staged an absolute classic so it shouldn’t be ruled out even if UGA doesn’t quite look in the same league as their West rivals.

Oklahoma

In terms of a potential semifinal game, it will be hard to top the potential drama of Tua Tagovailoa vs. Kyler Murray and offensive savant Lincoln Riley against defensive mastermind Nick Saban. While things may be very one-sided when it comes to the matchup between Alabama’s offense against OU’s defense, there may be only one team in the country truly capable of going blow-for-blow with the Tide scoring-wise and that’s this one.

If you look back through the College Football playoff era, Alabama has only lost five games. The common thread among them? An offense that could move the ball and generally a quarterback with a big arm who can move around the pocket. Three of those five losses came when Alabama scored 31 or more points and playing a Big 12 squad would likely result in a similar type of shootout.

Don’t forget that the Sooners have had a knack for rising up and knocking off SEC foes when little is expected of them either. Yes they’d face long odds but the Murray-Riley combination gives OU a shot in every game they are in no matter how much their defense remains a liability.

Michigan

The Wolverines' thrashing of Penn State 42-7 at the Big House solidified their status as the Big Ten front-runners and continued to show that this team has continued to improve from week-to-week. A potential Jim Harbaugh-Saban semifinal would have the TV networks drooling and the likelihood of that happening seems to grow with each passing week. Maybe more to the point, Big Blue also is turning into the team that could be just the one to challenge the top dog.

You can start on defense, which Don Brown has leading the country in just about every statistic imaginable. This isn’t just a unit that can stop Big Ten offenses though, they’re physical at the line and fast on the back end. There’s still a bit of an unknown in the secondary but they’ve looked good so far and do a lot of things that could disrupt the timing of the routes Tide OC Mike Locksley likes to draw up. Plus, they’re getting healthier too with All-American Rashan Gary showing flashes of his old self for the first time in a month.

Offensively, there are improvements too. Shea Patterson looks like the confident kid we saw at times back at Ole Miss and the offense has been incorporating his ability to run a lot more. Plus, Tarik Black nearly had a touchdown against the Nittany Lions in his first game back and provides a much needed threat on the outside. Mix in the ability to run the ball with Karan Higdon and this looks like one of those LSU teams of the early 2010s that actually went up against Alabama and managed to get a victory from time to time.

This is not the same ol’ Michigan squad we’ve seen the first few years in Harbaugh’s tenure and it might be the program best position to make things interesting in a semifinal game with so much time to prepare.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes have not earned the right to be on this list based on the way they’ve looked the past month but looking below the surface does reveal they can’t be completely written off.

They have an elite coach. They have an elite roster. And if they make the playoff, they’ll have had an elite run through November and into late December.

As noted above, the offense has enough pieces to keep pace if there’s any sort of shootout. Dwayne Haskins hasn’t been great the past two games but can pile up the numbers in a hurry and has a bunch of unique weapons on the outside. The offensive line has been battle-tested and there are two 2,000-yard career rushers in the backfield that can help control the pace.

Outside of Oklahoma though, nobody sports a worse defense and the open question around Columbus is if that can be fixed at all after Nebraska was able to move the ball with some ease on Saturday. It’s unlikely, but nobody gave the team a shot in 2014 either.

Notre Dame

Brian Kelly did an interview with ESPN last week and told Gene Wojciechowski that while you should be careful what you wish for when it comes to playing Alabama, he would be okay with it. Images of that 2012 BCS title game beatdown will be fresh in the minds of everybody if these two programs were to actually meet on the field again but the '18 version of the Irish are a much different proposition.

First off, the defense is even more athletic than that 2012 group and they have some stout guys up front like Jerry Tillery and Daelin Hayes. They’ve got guys that can come off the edge like Julian Okwara and Drue Tranquill too. The secondary has been underrated all year long and so has their running backs. Quarterback Ian Book also has taken care of the football since assuming the starting role and he has some weapons underneath and downfield to find that could make things interesting as well.

Yet for as good as Notre Dame has been and as many matchup issues as they could cause though... only the most ardent supporters of the lucky leprechaun think this Irish team really would have a shot in either a semifinal game or the title game itself in Santa Clara.

Clemson

This is where things get interesting. It goes without saying that both programs are intimately familiar with each other and you can bet the Tigers would be fired up to avenge their rubber match loss in last season's Sugar Bowl.

Let’s start on defense, where that line full of All-Americans is deeper than it ever has been (hello Xavier Thomas) and has the potential to apply some pressure to Tua Tagovailoa without blitzing. That would be key because those linebackers not only need to keep eyes on the quarterback if he scrambles, but to slow down some of the shifts and motions you see that Alabama uses to get a defense moving horizontally. Even the secondary, which had their issues when banged up against Syracuse, has come along in recent weeks too.

On the other side of the ball, Dabo Swinney made a change at quarterback last month for one reason: to get a vertical passing game with Trevor Lawrence in order to go up against a team just like Alabama in a semifinal scenario. The Tigers sport one of the deepest receiving corps this side of Tuscaloosa and that combination is something that they could exploit by hitting big plays. And let us not forget how well Clemson has been running the ball behind Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster.

In short, nobody has a better shot than the one team who knows how to topple the Tide. There may not be Deshaun Watson on the sidelines but there’s still talent, coaching and a ton of veterans who know how to get the job done in orange.

BetOnline released odds on three potential matchups with Alabama following their game against LSU and those numbers weren’t pretty at all: Clemson +8.5, Michigan +14 and Notre Dame +20.5. That’s an indication of just how far in front those in the desert think the Crimson Tide are in front of everybody else.

We all know though, that this is a sport involving a swath of 18-25-year olds and long layoffs between games down the stretch. One never can say never in the end but there are at least a select few programs that might be able to trip up the sport’s juggernaut, even if doing so looks less likely than it has in some time.

Other observations from the week that was in college football:

2. Calculus for success in the SEC needs to be reconfigured

Let’s face it, for as much as fans of the conference have proudly changed "S-E-C! S-E-C!" after games and whenever appropriate, there’s been a growing sense that the league has been carried nationally by Alabama lately. Sure, the Georgia’s and Auburn’s and Mississippi State’s of the world have been able to cobble together a great season but, at the end of the day, there has been the Crimson Tide and everybody else in a rather predictable order lately.

It didn’t used to be this way, of course. From 2007-10, four different programs from the SEC hoisted the crystal football of the BCS as part of that incredible run where the conference claimed seven titles in a row. While Georgia did come within an overtime of ending this dynastic run by Nick Saban last season, for the most part there’s one giant gorilla and 13 others trying to give chase to varying degrees of success.

In the past decade, the Tide have 77 SEC wins against just nine losses (a robust 90 percent). In the playoff era, it’s been 35 of 38. Following Saturday’s win over LSU, it appears the gap is ginormous between Alabama and their nearest challenger once again.

That’s not to say losses won’t happen or the Tide can’t stumble along the way but that game down in Baton Rouge should underscore that teams, fans, players and coaches might be wise to alter their calculus for what a successful season entails. As much as everybody would love to celebrate a championship in Atlanta in early December that is simply unrealistic for all but one or, maybe, two teams aside from the one currently ranked No. 1. Even then, those odds aren’t great for even those two (see above in item No. 1).

LSU is still having a great season and have exceeded expectations in 2018. The same can be said of Georgia and Kentucky no matter what November holds. That fact should not be lost on those fan bases as they are left worrying about that gap between them and Alabama.

“Hey, we got beat at the line of scrimmage” LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said after the loss. “I gotta recruit better defensive linemen. Gotta recruit better offensive linemen. Same old thing. Gotta beat Alabama at the line of scrimmage.”

That’s true, but it’s also something a head coach doesn’t typically say out loud after a loss. Even if Orgeron does improve the Tigers up front though, it’s unlikely to be enough to consistently beat the folks in Tuscaloosa short of Saban retiring sometime soon. That doesn’t mean LSU can’t get better or be more consistent on the national stage but the program is only setting themselves up to be disappointed if they only measure success in the black/white nature of beating the Tide.

A few other leagues have the same issue too. Clemson has won 34 of their past 38 in ACC play during the playoff era. Oklahoma is at 35 of their past 42 since 2014, including a recent stretch of 30 of their past 32 with Lincoln Riley on campus. Though each has natural foils, issues in Tallahassee and Austin mean the gap appears to be growing along the coast and throughout Texas. There are a few cracks in the armor this season but Ohio State is still 36-of-40 in conference play during the same time frame too.

This is just life in college football. If you’re only interested in the chase for a conference title or the playoff itself, you’re doing it wrong. The thrill is in the week-to-week pageantry, the incredible moments every Saturday and the arguing over the following six days. This season may very well be Alabama and everybody else but that doesn’t mean that this season can’t be good and fun — you just have to alter your world view of what success means in the middle of this Crimson Tide run.

3. AAC has taken a step back while Mountain West is surging

When it comes to the Group of 5 bid for the New Year’s Six, there’s typically only going to be two leagues that matter: the American and the Mountain West. While an undefeated run out of the MAC would be given consideration by the College Football Playoff selection committee, history and results have proven that the two are simply a cut above the others and will jockey each other every season for that elusive bid.

What’s been interesting to see over the past few weeks is just how the fortunes of each conference have been trending. While UCF remains in the lead this season to make it to a major bowl, the gap between the Knights and the rest of their conference — and, indeed, the rest of the country — is much smaller than it was a year ago. Heck, it’s smaller than it probably has been between the AAC and the MWC in 2018 than at any point in the last three years.

Let’s start with UCF’s wild win over Temple on Thursday night. Neither team seemed all that interested in playing defense and the resulting 52-40 score felt wildly appropriate given the way the game has played out. I’m on record that the Knights are not as good as they were last season in the absence of playmakers like Shaquem Griffin and a new coaching staff still learning the ropes. They are still a very good team with quarterback McKenzie Milton and the array of skill position talent he has at his disposal but the playoff talk emanating out of Orlando really needs to be put to a stop.

The thing is, who else in the league is all that good? The Owls have turned things around since an awful start in September and become a solid team under Geoff Collins. The jury is still probably out on Cincinnati until the next few weeks and South Florida has been playing with fire all of 2018 and are finally getting burnt. In the West division, Memphis has regressed from where they were at the past few seasons and so has Navy. SMU’s beatdown of Houston (sans Ed Oliver) on Saturday night only reinforces that the Cougars have growing pains of their own and are far from the kind of team their record suggests.

Against this backdrop, the Mountain West has quietly been making strides to address both depth and the number of elite teams in the conference. They are 3-0 overall against the AAC in non-conference play and were much more competitive against Power 5 teams than they have been.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect is that they’re doing so with Boise State not quite being that Boise State that is stuck in all our minds from those runs of yesteryear. Utah State has played phenomenally for Matt Wells and Fresno State is getting plenty of respect from the selection committee. San Diego State has dealt with injuries to key players but is still chugging along as usual at 7-2. Even on the edges of the league, teams like Hawaii, Nevada and San Jose State have made strides over the course of the season to make up for the regression from Wyoming, Colorado State and Air Force among others.

All of which shapes up a fascinating few weeks in November. UCF still has tests ahead against Cincy and their in-state rivals. Jeff Tedford’s Bulldogs have a trip to the blue turf and a game against the Aztecs in consecutive weeks. Utah State will have the division on the line when they conclude against Boise too.

The race is certainly on for the Group of 5 bid and it’s been as close as it probably ever has.

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4. Pac-12’s powerless parity

Just when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse in the Pac-12, the conference takes a moment to rebuke with a "hold my beer" moment.

Washington State still carries the league’s banner but played an absolutely dreadful game to watch with Cal at home. Then previous South division front-runner Utah went down to Tempe and laid an egg — and lost their quarterback Tyler Huntley for the season in the process. The Utes are still in first place but it’s Arizona State (Herm!) who controls their fate to reach Santa Clara for the title game and previously left-for-dead Arizona is not out of the picture either.

Even USC wasn’t all that impressive on the road against Oregon State and will have a fight on their hands when the Bears come to down next Saturday night with Clay Helton’s seat still quite warm.

Then there was the Stanford-Washington game up in Seattle. This North showdown was previously the conference’s game of the year dating back several seasons but it felt like it was in witness protection on Pac-12 Networks opposite Alabama-LSU, Oklahoma-Texas Tech and Notre Dame-Northwestern. The Cardinal did wind up making things interesting in the second half but to say the game was an afterthought might be putting it mildly.

While Larry Scott and others will claim this is all because of parity in the conference, it is increasingly clear that the lack of any elite program — and only a handful of good ones — is just adding to their reputation woes nationally. Maybe the more concerning trend: is there any hope of turning things around when you look below the surface?

5. Heisman race over?

It sure felt that as soon as Tua Tagovailoa crossed the goal line on his 44-yard touchdown run against LSU, the Heisman race was all but over for 2018. It’s not just that the Crimson Tide signal-caller has been that good — he has been — it’s that there are seemingly precious few things that other contenders can do to get the requisite buzz to match.

Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray did toss two interceptions against Texas Tech on his first two drives but rebounded to score four times and become a 360-yard passer with 100 rushing yards. Washington State’s Gardner Minshew led a game-winning drive in the final minute but was otherwise off against Cal and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins was downright erratic against Nebraska. Perhaps Will Grier really can get things going and make a late run at the award but even his wild game-winning touchdown and two-point conversion felt like it was overshadowed by what Tua did down in Baton Rouge.

As a longtime voter for the award, I’ll withhold judgement until the season is over but it sure seems like the inevitable will happen down in New York in early December just like it’s felt like since September.

6. Hot seats getting hotter

Kansas fired David Beaty on Sunday in an inevitable move. Add in DJ Durkin formally getting axed by Maryland earlier in the week and Bowling Green’s dismissal of Mike Jinks last month and we’re up to three official FBS openings already in the final month of the regular season. While it doesn’t portend to be a particularly active coaching carousel in 2018, there’s always that potential.

We’ll have an in-depth hot seat column soon but let’s just say that the three above should have some company in the coming weeks. As one administrator noted recently, don’t be surprised if more than a few coaches get pushed out the Sunday or Monday prior to a rivalry game in order to prevent sentiment from changing or a surprise bowl bid being secured.

One thing is clear though, there are several athletic directors beyond the Jayhawks’ Jeff Long who are already doing their homework and sending out feelers. Add in a potentially huge number of NFL head coach openings and a bit more realization of what needs to happen with the early signing day and there could be lots of news coming out soon.

7. Sunshine state woes

While attention for most in Florida is probably on Election Day the past few weeks, it has not gone unnoticed that things have been rough on the gridiron for teams in the region this season and, particularly, the past few weeks.

The Associated Press notes that the big three of Miami, Florida and Florida State all lost on consecutive weekends for the first time ever. The woes this weekend were not limited to those schools however as the seven Florida FBS schools went 1-4 against programs from out of state (lone win, UCF over Temple) and are a combined 5-11 the past three weeks with just a single win against a team above .500 (again, the Knights over the Owls).

That is... not great. Factor in the talent level the state produces and it’s borderline unfathomable.

Stat of the Week

For the first time in 306 days, an Alabama starting quarterback took a snap in the fourth quarter.

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: Will Grier, West Virginia

Heisman five: 1. Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), 2. Kyler Murray (Oklahoma), 3. Gardner Minshew (Washington State), 4. Will Grier (West Virginia), 5. Travis Etienne (Clemson)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Notre Dame, 4. Michigan

Team of the week: Pitt

Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Quote of the week: “Hey, you want to win the game? Let’s win the game.” — Dana Holgorsen before his team went for two.

Play of the Week

Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 11.

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Notre Dame

4. Michigan

5. Georgia

6. Oklahoma

7. West Virginia

8. Washington State

9. LSU

10. Ohio State

11. Iowa State

12. Kentucky

13. UCF

14. Boston College

15. Fresno State

16. NC State

Best of the rest: Michigan State, Utah State, Syracuse, Texas, Auburn, Penn State, Army, Buffalo, Purdue

Pre-snap Reads

Auburn at Georgia

What a difference a year makes for these two squads as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry gets underway in the regular season again. The Tigers, fresh off an upset of Texas A&M, seem to have a bit of confidence back after that fourth-quarter rally and might be trending toward the preseason edition we once saw. Going between the hedges will be tough but something says this one will be fairly close up until halftime before Georgia pulls away with some big plays in the third quarter.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

Ohio State at Michigan State

The Spartans have given the Buckeyes issues over the years but I’m not convinced they have the offensive creativity or the playmakers to get things going against a suspect OSU defense. Something says that the struggles against a more explosive Nebraska team served as a wake-up call and Ohio State will come out focused on the road and ready to secure a win by at least three-scores.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Clemson at Boston College

The center of the college football weekend being in Boston will never seem normal. The Tigers' defensive front has really been impressive the past few weeks and you can bet they will view playing against AJ Dillon (who left in the third quarter of the win over Virginia Tech with some sort of injury) as a personal challenge. The Eagles will try and shorten the game but in the end, Clemson keeps rolling with another huge ACC win.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.