It's still early, but Alabama and Ohio State have already separated themselves a bit in the College Football Playoff conversation
As the final minutes of Ohio State’s romp over Oklahoma ticked by and thoughts turned to what the college football universe looked like after Week 3, one couldn’t help but wonder why the television networks and marketers hadn’t trumpeted up the fact that, in more ways than one, this should have been billed as ‘Separation Saturday.’
The Buckeyes, even as young as they are, showed that there’s still a gap between them and the rest of the Big Ten as they remain firmly in the small group of elite teams. Alabama reaffirmed that the SEC title chase is pretty much a one-man race after just three weeks. Louisville showed there was no longer just a big two in the ACC and created plenty of distance between themselves and Florida State. By the time Texas fell to California, the Big 12 also had divorced itself almost completely from the College Football Playoff hunt before September was even up. Stanford’s thorough undressing of USC reiterated that the Cardinal were the flagship program on the West Coast.
Yet among the dozens of major storylines to emerge from the third week of the season, nothing resonated more at the top of the national title chase than what happened in Norman, Oklahoma and Oxford, Mississippi.
Earlier in the day, Alabama finally vanquished the one team that has had its number in a pesky Ole Miss squad. The Tide overcame a 21-point deficit in a rather calm way for a team with a true freshman quarterback making his first true road start too. While the final scoreboard was closer than the game actually was, the fact that Alabama scored offensively, defensively and on special teams further proves that this is the most complete team in the country. At least the Rebels looked competitive though. Bob Stoops’ Sooners, a semifinalist a season ago and a top-five team in August, looked completely out-played, out-hustled and out-coached at the hands of the Buckeyes.
Elite programs recruit at an incredible level, play consistently, and are favored every week of the season for a reason. So far, that’s precisely what Alabama and Ohio State have been the past few years. While Louisville and Lamar Jackson have made enough noise to at least knock on the same door in 2016, the top two teams in the polls are firmly entrenched there for a reason and even Bobby Petrino would probably admit there’s some distance between his Cardinals and the two gold standards in the sport.
So in light of both the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide passing what might be their toughest test until November, is there anything left to derail college football from a heavyweight rematch of epic proportions this season? Based on the way Week 3 went and looking ahead to the upcoming slate, Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer Part V looks an awful lot like a sure thing come January.
It should come as no surprise of course. At the beginning of the year one should have been skeptical that the Tide could find yet another plug-and-play starter at quarterback and replace a Heisman Trophy winner as if it were no big deal. One also had every right to question if one of the most talented NFL draft classes ever would be hard to replace in Columbus.
Yet here we are again, a remarkable three quarters of the season still remaining and it looking very much drama-free at the top thanks two all-time great head coaches and a pair of impressive teams.
Meyer’s ability to reload with five-star talent is no new revelation of course but what Ohio State showed in its win at Oklahoma was the same look the team displayed two years ago in that magical run to another title. Though young, these Buckeyes are both very good right now and plenty hungry to prove people wrong. In a scary thought for others, they’re also bound to improve a lot between now and the end of the year as new moving parts learn to work as one.
The same can be said of Saban’s squad, which has had a grip on the sport that is in many ways a historical marvel. The SEC meat-grinder does not look as rough and tumble as it has been in past years so we may not really know until the end of the season just how good the team from Tuscaloosa can be. It seems that as sure as the sun rises in the East on Sept. 19, the Tide will settle in as the playoff’s No. 1 seed come December.
And while it would never be talked about publicly, you can bet that there would be a little extra joy from the head coach on down at seeing Ohio State on the opposite sideline in Tampa this January. The two coaches have met four times over the years and split those meetings at an even two games apiece, the last being an epic semifinal clash two seasons ago. A rubber match at this point would be phenomenal for those without a rooting interest and a fitting end to what has already become a wild college football season.
Of course, it’s still a long season and predicting what 18-25-year olds will do over the coming months is anything but easy. What could really derail a Saban and Meyer rematch at this point in time though? After last Saturday, the options are starting to dwindle pretty quickly.
In the ACC, Louisville has certainly proved to be ahead of schedule. Jackson is the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy at this point and the defense is perhaps the most underrated part of the team’s rise to No. 3 in the polls. If the Cardinals make it to the Playoff, they’ll be well tested given that they might face three top-five teams before the selection committee’s final vote is taken.
Then there’s Clemson, which pushed Alabama to the brink nine months ago and was long thought to be the team that could make another run at the national title. The Tigers have not looked all that sharp to begin the year but have still recruited at an elite level under Dabo Swinney, still line up Deshaun Watson behind center and still have young talent that is beginning to play like All-Americans. Florida State checks off many of those same boxes and, this past weekend notwithstanding, and still has a chance at putting everything together and rallying for a run to the final four.
In the SEC, the only team that has shown it might be capable of even pushing Alabama has surprisingly been Texas A&M. There are still question marks about the Aggies but at least they do have a quarterback on the roster in Trevor Knight who knows what it takes to top the Tide.
Ohio State does face some challenges for a final four berth inside its own conference and particularly inside of its own division. Michigan’s defense is going to be a problem for any team and one should never discount Jim Harbaugh’s abilities. Michigan State remains a talented and well-coached team too and the Spartans have solved Meyer’s Buckeyes better than anybody in recent memory.
Perhaps this is the year Stanford puts everything together and makes the final four too. Christian McCaffrey is going to be a load for every team and the Cardinal’s style of play shortens games and puts a premium on not making mistakes. Washington also could be a threat out of the Pac-12 to make some noise as well.
Then there’s Houston, which has taken the Meyer blueprint and mixed in Texas talent and a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. The debate over whether the Cougars will make it into the Playoff should continue until they lose a game but until then, they shouldn’t be taken lightly by anybody.
Still, one can help but wonder if — with Alabama’s victory over Ole Miss and OSU’s blowout of OU fresh in the mind — if the rest of the season will be nothing but a long prelude for Meyer and Saban matching wits once again.
They’ve combined for an incredible seven of the past 10 national titles this decade after all and, based on how their teams played this past Saturday, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody that would take a bet against one of the two bringing home an eighth in January.
Stat of the Week
North Dakota State moved to 6-0 since 2010 against FBS teams after beating Iowa on Saturday and was rewarded richly for beating those upper-division foes to the tune of $2.175 million worth of guaranteed money. That’s taking your cake and eating it too, college football style.
That also was the first-ever loss by the Hawkeyes to an FCS opponent.
Tweet of the Week
Lamar Jackson 5x better than what I was at V-Tech....Enough said!! #future— Mike Vick (@MikeVick) September 17, 2016
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Heisman five: 1. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 2. Christian McCaffrey (Stanford), 3. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), 4. Greg Ward Jr. (Houston), 5. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)
Team of the week: Louisville
Goat of the week: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Quote of the week: "We got our asses kicked." - Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
Play of the Week
Noah Brown with the catch of the year so far.
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 4.
2. Ohio State
9. Michigan State
10. Texas A&M
12. Florida State
Just missed the cut: Utah, San Diego State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Boise State, Texas, Toledo, North Dakota State, Pitt.
Stanford at UCLA
I was shocked to see the Bruins open up as a slight favorite in this game after a lackluster offensive performance against BYU. UCLA did look good on defense last week but this is a big jump up in competition with the defending Pac-12 champions coming to town. Stanford has won eight straight against UCLA and it just seems like David Shaw has the powder blues’ number.
Wisconsin at Michigan State
Two great defenses, two running-centric offenses. If you want a throwback Big Ten game, you’re going to get one with this top-12 matchup. Wisconsin looked mighty shaky last week against a very inferior opponent but it’s possible the Badgers were just saving things for the conference opener. I’m not sold on either team just yet but I’ll go with the Spartans at home and with the more experienced quarterback.
Florida at Tennessee
Call this a battle of the walking wounded. Both teams are dealing with significant injury issues (particularly the Gators at quarterback) on top of a few uninspiring wins this year so far. The SEC East race will kick off on Saturday in earnest but we’ll begrudgingly go with the Vols in this one for the simple fact that this one is in Knoxville.
— 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 courtesy of Getty Images)