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Seven-Step Drop: COVID, Chaos and Ohio State All That Stand in the Way of Clemson-Alabama V

Crimson Tide, Tigers flex their muscles as the Big Ten prepares to finally kick off its season

College football is often painted as a cyclical sport, with one team rising to unknown peaks one season… only to fall down to the depths not long after a quarterback graduates or a head coach leaves. Most programs embody this phoenix-like nature of such an endeavor for various stretches but true enough it happens with enough regularity and precious few exceptions.

 

Sometimes the rise comes out of nowhere and lands with a thud (just ask reigning champion LSU). Other times it's a slow and gradual build-up and letdown. In a select few cases though, there are no peaks and valleys when viewed through the right time scale — it's just one constant line of success.

 

After Saturday's performances, it's safe to again include the sport's standard-bearers of Clemson and Alabama in that finite category. They are rightfully defined as the elite of the elite in college football right now and operating in rarified air that likely only includes two others in terms of resources — and nobody in terms of sustained success. At least one of the Crimson Tide or the Tigers has played for the national titles each of the past five seasons and boy does it sure look like that streak is going to stretch to six unless mass chaos or COVID-19 derails things.

 

So are you ready for Alabama-Clemson V? Because it sure seems like both teams are eager for such a high-stakes rubber match.

 

One can start in Tuscaloosa, where one of the most anticipated games of the year between resentful SEC rivals had that kind of feel early on. That was not just the result of it being under the lights in primetime on CBS but the decks being somewhat cleared for the mega-matchup too as it was the last game of the day to kick off and battled just two other games on the TV dial. Given the conference-centric schedules this year's pandemic has brought about, it was almost certainly guaranteed to be the most impactful regular-season tilt in the College Football Playoff race too.

 

For a half, it seemed to live up to the billing. Early haymakers were thrown. Big plays were both produced and negated as the pressure continued to build at Bryant-Denny. The Tide teetered for a good two quarters.

 

But then an unexpected spark seemed to break the damn dam open. Alabama — Alabama! — came through with a late, long field goal (2020 craziness in a nutshell) before halftime that seemed to inspire confidence. The end result? Twenty-four unanswered points to turn things into a rout. A defense that kept hearing how bad it was nabbed two picks in the runaway third quarter and wrapped up better than they had all season long. Special teams came through on the kicking game (though kickoff coverage needs more work) and the offense was simply phenomenal moving the ball up and down the field.

 

Big Game Bama showed up and showed out yet again.

 

 

Earlier in the week, 247Sports noted that in their roster composite index this was the first time that Alabama played a game at a so-called talent disadvantage due to the way Kirby Smart had recruited in Athens the past few years. Even amid all the Nick Saban/testing distractions though, the Tide once again looked nearly flawless to gain the inside track again at a conference title and another CFP berth.

 

And were it not for the level of competition they did it against, Saban's team may not have even had the most impressive outing of the weekend given Clemson's evisceration of Georgia Tech earlier in Atlanta.

 

To call it a blowout of the Yellow Jackets with a 73-7 final score might not do the Tigers justice to just how effortlessly they performed in a conference game against a foe that has been improved in 2020. Clemson led 52-7 at halftime and nearly converted on third down as many times as Tech even attempted to. Defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney scored on a fullback dive and was barely touched on his short trot into the end zone. Dabo Swinney put in a punter as his fourth quarterback to take snaps and the head coach's two sons alone had half the total catches the entire GT receiving corps did.

 

 

The lone blemish might have been Trevor Lawrence throwing his first interception in nearly a year (Oct. 19, 2019 to be precise) but that was otherwise it in a full "empty your bench" type of outing that saw third-stringers go off in the game.

 

So now you can see how a collision course toward a fifth meeting on the biggest stage seems very much in the cards. Though it's tough to step back from the hype enough, there may be just three things that could truly derail things as we sit here on the downslope of October.

 

First and foremost you have to start with the coronavirus, which obviously was the storyline around the SEC between Saban's (now false) positive result on Wednesday and Florida head coach Dan Mullen subsequently announcing he had come down with it as part of the Gators' ongoing outbreak. We've seen large swaths of teams already derailed from week to week this year already and things do not portend to become even easier no matter how many precautions are being taken or testing that goes on. The case numbers are up all over the country and the weather cooling off represents little comfort and far more danger to every program still trying to make it through everyday life right now.

 

Compartmentalizing the risks and issues of COVID-19 and setting them aside, we'll get our first glimpse of Ohio State next weekend but the Buckeyes remain the top on-field challenger to the duopoly in 2020 (on paper at least). Justin Fields is a Heisman candidate in a dangerous offense and Ryan Day has a roster that is stacked just as well as the other three elite teams mentioned above. OSU has experience all over and maybe just as notable, have a hunger to get to that extra gear after the way the Buckeyes narrowly lost to Clemson in last season's Fiesta Bowl.

 

Outside those two factors? Maybe it's just chaos. Perhaps JT Daniels could be the spark that gets Georgia back on track for another high-stakes showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Maybe Florida sorts out all the issues and takes an offense that does look capable of matching the Tide drive-for-drive into a thriller. Nobody out of the Big 12 appears capable of rising up but stranger things have happened before. Heck, maybe 2020 is so off-kilter that BYU enters the chat as the chaos agent nobody saw coming.

 

If there's anything we learned from this crazy sport over the years it's that the unexpected can still come up and surprise you just when you least it expect it. Whether that energy can overcome the gravitational pull of another meeting between the Tide and Tigers remains to be seen but after what transpired on Oct. 17, you'll find no bets against it for now.

 

Other thoughts from the weekend in college football:

 

2. Is the jury still out on Georgia?

As disappointing as the night was for UGA fans, that might not be the last of the Bulldogs we'll see on the national stage this year even if it eliminated some of the team's margin for error.

 

The team still has a clear path to the SEC East title and with it an opportunity to make it into the playoff. Heck, given how condensed the schedule is in the Pac-12 and the unimpressive nature of the Big 12, even a two-loss UGA could well be considered by the CFP committee as one of the two best teams in the country.

 

Start with the team's defense though because that was a unit that simply was not ready for what was thrown at them Saturday night. This group may well be Kirby Smart's most talented but it lost a lot of one-on-one matchups and was consistently out-schemed by Bama OC Steve Sarkisian. Mac Jones didn't need to make hardly any tight-window throws and often just needed to hit the easy layups to Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith and John Metchie III. DC Dan Lanning is a future head coach in short order but he won't like re-watching much of that film in the days to come.

 

Tailback Najee Harris was mostly an afterthought until the game was decided but, in terms of positives for the previous No. 1 scoring defense in the country, that might have been about it (and he still had 152 yards and a TD).

 

 

While you can at least buy into the fact that the Bulldogs will bounce back on that side of the ball and a potential rematch could mean something different, what will truly determine how this Georgia team will be remembered is going to be the quarterback position. As was clear well before Saturday night, Stetson Bennett IV is a serviceable, high-floor type of guy. But against elite teams in big games, he's simply not good enough.

 

Will the result in Tuscaloosa free up Smart to make the move to Daniels under center? That will be the question asked from now until Halloween everywhere from Athens and beyond. The former USC starter certainly increases the offensive ceiling of the team but just how much in Todd Monken's system remains to be seen.

 

The off week (a result of SEC schedule changes) comes at an opportune time for the Dawgs as a result. Kentucky's defense is no slouch and would be a tough test on the road for a QB making his first start coming off an ACL injury if the head coach does decide to make a change (fellow backup D'Wan Mathis may also get another look but Daniels is the clear focus here), but presents a get-your-feet-wet type of opportunity before an extra-important rivalry contest against Florida. Win those two and the team's final four could be solid warm-up acts to get everybody on the same page entering the SEC title game.

 

This isn't the last we'll see of Georgia in these big-time games but it's up to Smart to make enough changes so that the results are different for the Bulldogs. The path toward improvement and inching closer to that elephant on the program's back is still there but taking advantage of it will have to be seen before it's believed.

 

3. Gulf between Clemson and ACC widens

Interestingly enough, while Georgia-Alabama was the main event on Saturday night, Mack Brown and Mike Norvell sure did try to steal some thunder with a wild one down in Tallahassee. The surprising 31-28 Seminoles victory was full of massive swings of momentum, from an early lead for the home squad to an uneven second-half comeback from a team previously ranked (out of lack of options) in the top five that fell just short.

 

As notable as it was to see Norvell notch his first big win (complete with Gatorade shower and all afterwards) trying to rebuild the program and the budding emergence of QB Jordan Travis, the outcome was yet another stark reminder at just how far the gap continues to be in the ACC between stalwart Clemson and all others.

 

The Tigers took care of Miami last week in convincing fashion and looked otherworldly against Georgia Tech. North Carolina was bandied about as a potential challenger behind an older, wiser Sam Howell and a team that nearly did the trick in 2019. But that was laid out to be a mirage after lucking out against Boston College earlier this year and the loss to FSU on Saturday — dropping Brown to 0-10 against his alma mater no less.

 

The Tar Heels were far from the only ones to illustrate the talent gap between the lines in the ACC though. Notre Dame, now ranked in the top five themselves, labored to beat a Louisville squad that had been allowing nearly five touchdowns a game. The 12 points were the fewest the program had scored since that College Football Playoff semifinal against the Tigers in the Cotton Bowl and the Irish have yet to keep a consistent effort up for four quarters this season.

 

Also a red flag for the golden domers: the record of teams they've played is just 5-16 combined. Throw out the 52-0 win against rebuilding USF and the first/only conference schedule has looked much more uneven than expected for Brian Kelly's crew. The defense is solid and the run game looks impressive so far but nobody has yet seen the flashes (or consistency) needed to challenge Clemson when the Tigers come to South Bend next month.

 

Elsewhere in the ACC, Miami has already been dispatched by the Tigers while the budding middle class looks just that — like a middle class. NC State seems improved but just lost QB Devin Leary to a broken leg that required surgery. Boston College took a step back on Saturday and only their opponent Virginia Tech is in the shrinking grouping of other teams with just one loss. The Hokies do look better by the week and continue to get closer to full strength after their roster (and coaching staff) was decimated by COVID-19 and subsequent contact tracing. Yet for all the positives Justin Fuente's team is generating behind that impeccable ground game of theirs, they won't really be judged until they play the Hurricanes and Pitt leading into a fun meeting with the conference overlords in Blacksburg.

 

Maybe a few curveballs are still in store for the league after eliminating divisions and making it a 15-team free-for-all but it sure seems like we're still right back where we started along the east coast in talking about the gap between Clemson and everybody else.

 

4. Yessir (Barry Odom)

It's still strange to think about postseason awards at this juncture but you might be hard-pressed not to celebrate the budding candidacies for hardware coming out of Fayetteville.

 

The Hogs went just 2-10 last year with a near record-long SEC losing streak but they've quickly turned things around to the point where they're getting plenty of eyes on them beyond the Ozarks. Once laughed at hire Sam Pittman is rightfully being lauded for the job he's done and will be a regular on those midseason watch lists for Coach of the Year Awards. Even without a win that should have been last week against Auburn, the Razorbacks took care of business against Ole Miss and already hit their over mark on the year according to the preseason oddsmakers.

 

While the top hog is getting plenty of attention, equal praise should be heaped upon his best hire this offseason in nabbing former Missouri head coach Barry Odom to run the defense. Arkansas was 124th in scoring defense in 2019 and held just two conference foes under the 30-point mark. Only Georgia has exceeded that mark in 2020 and the Hogs shut down Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin far better than what Alabama did the week prior — forcing six interceptions from Matt Corral and returning two back for scores.

 

Given what has transpired so far, Odom very well might be the favorite for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant given such a turnaround. While he was always a sharp defensive mind, the years in Columbia colored some of the outside perception of him but the fact remains that he's one of the best around when it comes to running things on that side of the ball. The Razorbacks aren't as talent-deficient as some would believe given their recent records and Odom's presence has only reinforced how much ex-DC John Chavis was overpaid in the same role.

 

Pittman's hire was mocked given the circumstances Arkansas found itself in but credit is due as he's been the right man for the job so far. He assembled a top-notch staff headlined by Odom and the team should be 3-1 and sitting as a ranked squad for the first time in ages.

 

There's still plenty of work left to do but you have to go back to the heights of the pre-motorcycle Bobby Petrino era for Arkansas to have the kind of momentum it has right now. That's a testament to their new head coach and his good friend getting the buy-in needed to turn things around.

 

5. Begin the Gus Malzahn hot seat talk no matter the finances

While Pittman is earning praise, the guy who luckily beat him a week ago finds himself back in hot water with a notoriously fickle fan base. Auburn is 2-2 but really a blown call away from being 1-3 and under a full pitchfork revolution on the Plains. The Tigers scored just six points in the second half in their loss to South Carolina and, most frustrating to those in orange, could not get out of their own way.

 

Though the defense has a few growing pains to deal with, that's clearly not the issue of most concern to Malzahn and why he's under fire. Any optimism has been washed away quickly and the Malzahn-Chad Morris combination has produced some flowery offseason prose but little substance on the field. Quarterback Bo Nix has not taken any steps forward as a sophomore and the run game — the fundamental basis for the entire offense doing anything — is stuck in neutral most afternoons.

 

 

The cries for Malzahn's job would happen in just about every scenario sans Auburn sitting undefeated in the standings but it feels like the drumbeat for change will continue to grow louder as the weather grows colder. It's hard to fathom a change being made given his $21.45 million buyout amid a pandemic that has reduced revenues so much but if any school could come up with that kind of coin from angry boosters, it's AU.

 

The bottom line, either way, is that fixes need to be made to get the run game going (which also starts with the offensive line) and helping Nix become more comfortable throwing the football on time. The upcoming games against Ole Miss and LSU present defenses that can allow the Tigers to get back on track but they better take advantage because that closing kick of Alabama and Texas A&M could be brutal when the time comes.

 

So if you think that $21-plus million is getting brought up now, you best believe it will be a talking point among the fan base the next three months too baring a miracle.

 

6. Big Ten's return brings intrigue and packed schedule

We get a full slate of Big Ten football next week and as good as it is to put those words into the ether, it will be even better actually seeing what kind of teams the league will feature. Because the season is eight weeks in and there was a lack of preseason hype/previews surrounding most of the conference, it feels like we're really jumping in fresh.

 

We know Ohio State is going to be good and the runaway league favorites but Penn State figures to be their biggest challenger and we don't quite know what to expect out of the Nittany Lions without Micah Parsons on defense and a rebooted offense behind new OC Kirk Ciarrocca. Indiana is no pushover and that might be the best game of the mid-day slate in the Big Ten to catch as the pecking order gets sorted quickly.

 

Illinois doesn't figure to test Wisconsin much judging by that line but we all know what happened the last time the two met (the Badgers will at least be motivated coming into this one and take things seriously Friday night). Still, we'll have to see how presumed starter Graham Mertz does at quarterback following Jack Coan's foot injury. The redshirt freshman was hailed as a difference-maker as a recruit but now has the spotlight on him in 2020. His play will determine Wisconsin's ceiling in the West and if another New Year's Six bowl is within reach.

 

Then there's just trying to figure out what to expect from others like Rutgers and Michigan State given the new coaching staffs and such little time for them to work on the field. The play could be ugly in games like that but it could double as a benchmark to see just how far both programs have to go given the depths they were in 2019. Same for Maryland-Northwestern. Then we get our last run with Rondale Moore at Purdue against an unknown in Iowa.

 

So yes, it's good to have you back Big Ten. Now it's time to see what you've been up to after several months on the backburner.

 

7. MWC late night

The most glorious news for those who are true college football degenerates about next week though? The return of Mountain West late-night games (there's three on the docket, plus a BYU-Texas State tilt too). The schedule wrapping up so early on a Saturday has been tough to get used to but thankfully the MWC (and soon the Pac-12) will get us back to normal by playing under the lights over the coming weeks.

 

Given the lack of practice and the varying states of flux all the programs are, this could be a truly wild shortened season out West.

 

To which we say: bring it on!

 

Tweet(s) of the Week

 

Give the Arkansas social media team a raise.

 

 

 

Play of the Week

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: Zach Wilson, BYU

Team of the Week: Florida State

Goat of the Week: Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

Heisman Five: 1. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), 2. Kyle Pitts (Florida), 3. Zach Wilson (BYU), 4. Travis Etienne (Clemson), 5. Jaylen Waddle (Alabama)

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 — Notre Dame vs. USC, Cotton Bowl — BYU vs. Texas A&M, 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. Alabama

3. Ohio State

4. Georgia

5. Texas A&M

6. BYU

7. Notre Dame

8. Penn State

9. Miami

10. Florida

11. USC

12. SMU

13. Oklahoma State

14. Iowa State

15. Wisconsin

16. Cincinnati

17. Michigan

18. Oregon

19. North Carolina

20. Virginia Tech

21. Arkansas

22. Coastal Carolina

23. Marshall

24. Memphis

25. NC State

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Nebraska at Ohio State

Welcome to the party Big Ten, this will be a nice little measuring stick game to see if Scott Frost has made any progress in Lincoln or if the Buckeyes are a College Football Playoff contender as expected. Things might be close early as the two sides feel each other out in a sloppy first half but the home side will take care of business and make this lopsided after the break, in usual fashion. The Pick: Ohio State -23

 

Iowa State at Oklahoma State

It feels like forever ago that we've seen both teams in action too and that may help the Cowboys from a health standpoint if anything. Still, seems easy to expect some rust and a few big plays to decide this one for three quarters before a tennis match breaks out. ISU has come up a bit short in these types of moments in the past but they get the ball last and pull off the upset in a fun, close one. The Pick: Iowa State +4

 

Michigan at Minnesota

No idea what of think of either side here as a rivalry game opens the Big Ten slate for each. The no crowd factor hurts Minnesota in this instance though their experience should overcome it. Michigan lands some punches early but eventually the Gophers row the boat to a win that is a bit deceptive when it comes to the final score. The Pick: Minnesota +2

 

— 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.

 

(Top photo by Crimson Tide Photos/UA Athletics, courtesy of rolltide.com)

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