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Seven-Step Drop: College Football's Elite Further Entrenched After Weekend of Chaos

On another Saturday full of surprising results, top dogs like Clemson took care of business in impressive fashion

A weekend in college football is about many things.

 

The pageantry of course. The distinct regional flavors of each conference too. Then there's the uniqueness of each stadium, the histrionics, the incredible fans, the wild plays, and the host of bizarre outcomes resulting from 130 diverse teams each playing the same sport subject to the wild swings of aptitude from a group of 18-24-year-olds.

 

Boil it all down however and what are you left with though? When you filter and refine all those results and moments, what is still standing? After you've eliminated the excess away from the field and superfluous off it? Well, what you're left with as the major takeaway from a noon-to-midnight run of action is often just two things: the blue bloods and the upsets. The Goliaths running rampant to varying degrees and the handful of Davids who rise up to notch a victory. In this era, it's often labeled as the College Football Playoff contenders and everybody else still fighting to leave an imprint on the landscape beyond their hometown bubble.

 

Such was the case once again on Saturday in what we're labeling Week 6 of this pandemic-influenced season. Chaos reigned from Dallas to the Deep South plus up-and-down the East Coast. The Big 12 race was further shaken up and the SEC became even more muddled for the most part. Offenses were high-flying almost universally save for peculiar outings in Lexington, Ruston and West Point. Finishes were dramatic and #collegekickers once again trended on social media for all the wrong reasons.

 

Pull back from the big picture and look at the landscape as a result of all that and you go back to what tends to be a universal truth though: the blue bloods and the upsets.

 

While still sporting noticeable flaws, college football's elite seemed to further separate from the pack when it came to chasing trophies. Clemson passed a rare ACC challenge against a top-10 team by barely breaking a sweat. Alabama's offense continues to pick up where it left off even if the defense didn't. Georgia keeps starting slow but boy do they ever finish in clobbering yet another SEC foe.

 

Even the non-elite blue bloods drew one's eye toward them. Oklahoma and Texas for how far each had fallen amid a rash of mistakes that at least made for an entertaining and memorable Red River Rivalry overtime outing. Then there was Florida State's humbling at the hands of Notre Dame and a reminder just how far the hole is that the Seminoles have to dig out of.

 

Then there were the upsets. Texas A&M notched their biggest win of the Jimbo Fisher era in knocking off Kyle Trask and Florida in a wild one while Arkansas (controversially) almost did the same to Auburn. Eli Drinkwitz and Missouri earned their SEC stripes thanks to their back-and-forth victory against reigning champs LSU while Boston College proved to be just as lucky as good in escaping against Pitt in overtime.

 

It was fun at just about every turn... and a reminder that the regulars when it comes to the national title game are regulars for a reason.

 

Dabo Swinney's Tigers have rightfully been chastised for their often lacking schedule but it's also true they can only play who's in front of them. In this case, it was a Miami squad that sported a fairly well earned top-10 ranking aside their name. The Hurricanes, it should be said, are very much improved this year from the looks of it — much of that due to a new offensive system and the presence of D'Eriq King behind center.

 

And yet it wound up meaning not much at all when faced against the Death Star that operates out of Death Valley. Brent Venables' defense looks just as fast, physical and attacking as ever despite some fairly new names on the depth chart. Trevor Lawrence continues to be Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne reminds you frequently why he's one of the most underrated big names in the sport (not an oxymoron).

 

There are a few more issues Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have to deal with ahead of their one-on-one next week but both Alabama and Georgia continue to showcase why all those top-five recruiting classes are capable of putting up some incredible numbers over long stretches.

 

 

Maybe just as important is that those trying to scratch the surface saw just how hard it was to break that glass ceiling. The Aggies were exposed last week against the Tide and then turned around and exposed Florida, proving that leaky defense may keep the Gators out of Atlanta for yet another cycle. Notre Dame has looked good for long stretches but consistency remains an issue. Others who might have enough blue-chip players to make a run are stuck in neutral.

 

We'll have to wait a few more weeks before getting our first glimpse at the final member of the aristocrats, Ohio State. Still, until proven otherwise on the field, we'll just have to assume the gap between the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten will be similar to what it's been much of the past decade and the real measuring stick in Columbus has a script A, a Tiger paw or a bold G on the side of its helmet.

 

So yes, soak up every one of those unexpected results and enjoy the highlights. Just remember though, that on weekends like the one we just got done with, the programs who count themselves among the truly elite in college football only further entrenched their positions.

 

Other thoughts on the weekend in college football:

 

2. Red River, Red River, Tom Herman bowled over

It says a lot about the annual Texas-Oklahoma tilt that despite scores of close games throughout the years, the 2020 edition was just the second time the two rivals needed overtime to settle their differences. While this may have been the least interesting matchup between the schools since somewhere around the 1997 range, the pair still managed to flip that on its head and deliver one of the more memorable — in good ways and bad — roller-coaster rides the Cotton Bowl has seen in some time.

 

Beyond the four overtimes, the swings of emotions on both ends and the general eeriness of the state fairgrounds sans a state fair however must come a time to reflect not on the winner's position in the Big 12 but the loser's.

 

It was almost to the point of excess on Saturday afternoon that every shot FOX showed of UT head coach Tom Herman was of him in disbelief or bending over as a surrender cobra. Were it not for Sam Ehlinger leading a furious fourth-quarter rally to give us free football, it would have summed up the state of affairs in Austin that the Longhorns' punter not only had a punt blocked in the game, but he later drew an unsportsmanlike penalty that helped set up another score.

 

 

Though it was the senior quarterback's interception that ended the contest, he should probably be praised for his efforts in the game rather than criticized. Ehlinger is not without his flaws as a player but he's more often been the reason UT is even in games most weeks (including six TDs against the Sooners). It speaks to the team's lack of progress that they've been unable to get over the hump with him behind center at the moment. The burnt orange went through a phase in the wilderness looking for a legendary signal-caller since Colt McCoy left town and yet since they've found a reasonable facsimile of one, the rest of the team appears content to wander around aimlessly.

 

As it has been from the late Mack Brown years to Charlie Strong's tenure to now under Herman, Texas commits too many penalties. They turn the ball over in critical situations. They more often than not make the wrong play just before the end of either half.

 

Most frustrating for those on the 40 Acres is that this was supposed to be the season it all came together. The talent was there (as it often has been). The staff was re-tooled to make a run. The camaraderie and attitude seemed reflective of the optimism to start the year too.

 

Instead, it has fallen apart again.

 

Herman's seat was already warm with the fan base but a change would not only be prohibitively expensive (even for the sport's richest program) but unlikely, unnecessary and potentially a further hindrance to progress. Such a dreaded state of purgatory is simply where Texas is at the moment after yet another disappointing trip to Dallas.

 

3. Aggie euphoria

A few hours south in the Lone Star State a different story was written on Saturday. Though those same questions were being asked of Jimbo Fisher and his program after looking lost against Alabama the week prior, Texas A&M was at least able to flip the narrative seven days later and deliver what is unarguably the Aggies' marquee win under their $75 million head coach.

 

While A&M had certainly put in some leg work in terms of raising the floor (and ceiling) of things in College Station the past few years, they had still mostly beaten the teams they were supposed to, avoided the truly dreadful upset, and lost to the more established SEC powers.

 

Until Saturday against Florida at least, as Kellen Mond led the way with a consistent, quality outing that was helped by several key plays out of nowhere from his teammates to help get over the hump. There was some fight in the second half that hadn't shown up in a few previous high-profile tilts and it was impressive to see how a number of youngsters came through in the clutch against a team many were already calling the 2020 version of last year's LSU team.

 

The all-SEC slate always looked like a grind but it's not unreasonable to think the Aggies will now be favored from now until December. While there's still a ways to go to catch Alabama, a second-place finish in the SEC West and a New Year's Six invite would be quite the meaningful bit of progress.

 

The recruiting is going well, the facilities are of course in place and now maybe a win like this can be just what Fisher needed to kick-start the next leap the program has to take. It doesn't hurt that everybody else around them faltered on Saturday either:

 

 

4. DCs under fire

The prolific pace of offenses nowadays has made life tough for their counterparts on the other side of the ball for much of the last two decades but defensive coordinators seemed to take one under the chin extra hard on Saturday.

 

At Florida, it appears the often ridiculed "3rd and [Todd] Grantham" is going to be trending every week in Gainesville if the Gators' DC can't come up with some answers to create stops this season. UF has already given up 100 points so far in 2020 and it's not like they've been playing any true world-beaters in their first three weeks. Guys are simply not playing fast, blowing coverages with regularity, and failing to find that extra gear when faced with a bevy of weapons lining up across the line of scrimmage.

 

If there's any good news, it's that those like Grantham can commiserate with a pretty large group of peers across the country. Alabama fans already wanted to run Pete Golding out of town and Ole Miss' 48 points and 647 yards help their case quite a bit. Likewise, his controversial counterpart on the Rebels (Ole Miss co-DC D.J. Durkin) may have to burn that game's box score. Justin Hamilton finally got to make his debut at Virginia Tech in officially replacing Bud Foster and promptly saw a COVID-19-restricted defense give up 56 points to UNC. Texas' DC Chris Ash looked to be permanently wincing trying to withstand Lincoln Riley's offensive onslaught.

 

 

Few though, face the scrutiny going forward that Bo Pelini does in Baton Rouge. While the Tigers were expected to take a step back given all the talent they lost from an all-time great squad, LSU is sitting at 1-2 to open the year for the first time since 1994 firmly as the result of his shortcomings.

 

For anybody who watched K.J. Costello do it in the opener or freshman Connor Bazelak do it on Saturday for Mizzou, there's a myriad of issues at play but most of it has to do with the one calling plays in. Adjustments as the game goes on are hard to recognize and players continually make the same mistakes while finding themselves out of position with regularity. Sure, having All-American Derek Stingley Jr. fully healthy will help but there are still 10 other guys that Pelini has to sort out.

 

Such may just be life nowadays with such a title on the office door. Fortunately for Pelini — and unfortunately for Tigers fans — that massive contract that makes him the second-highest-paid assistant in the game will ensure he isn't going anywhere until coming up with some sort of fix to such woes.

 

5. Boston College keeps pressing case as most ACC's most improved

If you're an Ohio State fan sitting around on Saturdays searching for some non-Big Ten football to watch, chances are high you've caught a Boston College game. Why not right? The connection to former defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, the Eagles' new head coach, is understandable.

 

But as those Buckeyes fans have seen the Eagles progress from the 2019 version of a program stuck in neutral to the current 3-1 version in 2020, you might be at least a little concerned about some regression in Columbus with Hafley not around, right?

 

While former Boston College athletic director Martin Jarmond is not around to witness the turnaround, what the first-time head coach has done to give the team some positive momentum has been impressive thus far in 2020. After being stuck in neutral on both sides of the ball for so many years under Steve Addazio, the momentum is palpable on both sides of the ball after knocking off Pitt in OT last week.

 

Sure, the team benefited from a missed extra point but the on-field progress seems way ahead of projections. Much of that comes down to the stout defense the Eagles are trotting out (limiting North Carolina to 26 points looks better and better) but also some sparks on offense too. Phil Jurkovec has proven to be an upgrade at QB after arriving from Notre Dame with a waiver up in the air this summer and wideout Zay Flowers becoming more than just a cool name but a real threat on the outside (162 yards, 3 TDs against the Panthers' own stout defense).

 

Hafley has even impressed on the week-to-week details too and turned the program into one of the best when it comes to handling COIVD-19 with more than 4,500 tests and just a single positive.

 

Boston College was never going to be in a spot where the program was going to win games in blowout fashion but the fact that the Eagles have rebuilt to this extent (and amid all the coronavirus restrictions) as we hit mid-October deserves quite the kudos to Hafley and his staff.

 

6. BYU looking ahead?

You'll be forgiven with everything that was happening mid-afternoon on Saturday if you skipped over the UTSA at BYU game on the TV schedule. While the Roadrunners have looked more formidable under new head coach Jeff Traylor, there was a reason why the Cougars were a 35-point favorite coming into the game.

 

And yet, there BYU was... laboring from start to finish in the game. Though it was safe to assume the Cougars controlled the contest from start to finish, there was still no certainty with regards to the final score until late in the fourth quarter. QB Zach Wilson had a quality stat line once again with three total touchdowns and just shy of 300 passing yards but the entire team seemed a bit disjointed. Former LSU QB Lowell Narcisse made his first start for UTSA and posted two TDs and just three incompletions. This came while creating additional time with his legs too in a pretty nifty debut.

 

It was hard to say if the Cougars were looking ahead to their big game against Houston on Friday or simply had been reading too much of the press clippings praising their start to the season in steamrolling opponents and earning a top-15 ranking.

 

We'll see if that was just a momentary bit of coming back to earth or if this 4-0 start for the first time in seven years holds more when the team travels to the Lone Star State. But among the numerous surprises we got this week, BYU's struggles did catch an eye.

 

7. 9pm Pac-12 football > 9am Pac-12 football

We're over a month and a half into the season but it still feels so strange to keep ending the college football Saturday so early in the evening. Not going past midnight Eastern Time may be good for the old body clock at the end of the day but, for those who regularly consume late kickoffs as the calendar flips over to Sunday, there's just something missing this year when those final games finish up in the SEC, Conference USA or elsewhere.

 

It's been especially galling when BYU or UTEP, the lone Mountain Time Zone teams to play initially, start games earlier in the day or midweek. The night simply stops at the moment on Saturdays when veteran college football fans feel conditioned to turn on the TV for the latest #MWCLateNight or #Pac12AfterDark moments.

 

Much was written about the Pac-12 releasing their schedule and having a 9 a.m. PT game between USC and Arizona State in November. But the more welcome return of the sport on the West Coast will be not the teams kicking off early, but those teams who help keep the torch lit into the wee hours into the night.

 

Tweet(s) of the Week

 

 

 

 

Play of the Week

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

Ole Miss is the third team to have 600-plus yards against Nick Saban at Alabama (2013 Texas A&M, 2014 Auburn the others). The Crimson Tide are still 3-0 when giving up 600 yards under Saban. The last time Alabama lost when giving up that many yards was to... Nick Saban and LSU in 2001.

 

The Rebels and Tide combined for an SEC-record 1,370 total yards on Saturday night as well.

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Travis Etienne, Clemson

Team of the Week: Texas A&M

Goat(s) of the Week: Tom Herman, Ed Orgeron

Heisman Five: 1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 2. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 3. Kyle Pitts (Florida), 4. Travis Etienne (Clemson) 5. Shane Buechele (SMU)

Projected Playoff: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. Ohio State, 4. Georgia

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Ohio State vs. Alabama, Sugar Bowl — Clemson vs. Georgia, Orange Bowl — Miami vs. Texas A&M, Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame vs. USC, Peach Bowl — SMU vs. Iowa State

 

The 25

 

Here's my latest top 25 of those teams that are playing this fall:

 

1. Clemson

2. Ohio State

3. Alabama

4. Georgia

5. Notre Dame

6. Miami

7. Texas A&M

8. Penn State

9. North Carolina

10. Florida

11. USC

12. SMU

13. Oklahoma State

14. Iowa State

15. BYU

16. Wisconsin

17. Cincinnati

18. Michigan

19. Oregon

20. Louisiana

21. Houston

22. Virginia Tech

23. NC State

24. Arizona State

25. Coastal Carolina

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

BYU at Houston (Fri.)

It says a little bit about this week's slate that this is the second-most interesting game on the docket but is also reflective of what BYU has in front of it. While the Provo-based Cougars labored against UTSA, Houston didn't look rusty at all in their first game of the season. UH has far more playmakers but it's pretty clear BYU has the edge in the trenches. The lean is the folks in blue because of that but nothing would really surprise in this one. The Pick: BYU -4.5

 

LSU at Florida

This is one of the nastier inter-divisional rivalries in the SEC with plenty of bad blood over the years from both sides. This year's edition sees each team coming off a surprising loss and facing a contest that may be a referendum on each program for 2020. The Tigers' defense looks completely lost and something says that's not a good thing facing off against an angry version of the Gators' prolific offense. The Pick: Florida -10.5

 

Georgia at Alabama

There are big games and then there are the types that are SEC Championship Game previews and potential College Football Playoff elimination games. This is one such game and invites that explosive 'Bama offense to face off against what looks to be the best defense in college football. The old adage is that defense and a run game travels but we're still not convinced by the UGA offense enough to pick the Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa against Nick Saban and crew. The Pick: Alabama -6.5

 

— 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.

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