We’re telling you there’s a chance: An Alabama title might not be inevitable this season

NCAAF

Alabama is mortal. This makes sense intuitively, because Nick Saban is human and his players (except maybe Evan Neal) are human. But throughout the final three quarters of that 31-29 showdown in the Swamp, Alabama wasn’t just theoretically mortal. Instead, its flaws were visible.

The ground game ran into its share of brick walls against Brenton Cox and the Florida defensive front, though Brian Robinson Jr. and Jase McClellan ultimately converted the key third-down runs they needed.

Bryce Young seemed overwhelmed at times by the deafening Florida crowd, though his three TD passes in the first quarter gave the Tide the cushion it needed to survive.

The defense bent often and broke occasionally throughout a frenetic and physical second half, but when Florida needed a two-point conversion to tie the game with 3:10 left to play, Bama made the stop.

And Florida exposed these cracks with the QB its fans wanted benched, with a defensive coordinator who’s spent a decade as an SEC punchline. There was nothing fancy like date night at Applebee’s (why, why won’t that song go away?), just relentless, physical football. And the Gators came oh-so-close to ripping the top off this college football season.

People often forget Rocky lost his first fight with Apollo Creed, and Taylor Swift still took home the 2009 VMA, despite Kanye’s eloquent plea for sanity. There are no moral victories, only losses with an upside.

Florida suffered a loss Saturday, but there was upside — for the Gators, and also for the world of college football. It’s no surprise, Florida wants a rematch. If Dan Mullen is Darth Vader, it’s not until the second movie he cuts Luke’s hand off and encases Bryce Young in carbonite. Alabama is mortal and, as the wise philosopher Lloyd Christmas once suggested, we’re telling you there’s a chance.

There’s a chance Alabama won’t dominate the sport again as it did in 2020, as it has with few exceptions for the past 13 seasons. There’s a chance that all the coaching turnover and all the early departures to the NFL and the endless targets pinned to their chests will finally catch up with the Tide.

There’s a chance the class of truly elite teams — Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Notre Dame — are all vulnerable, too. All have shown their flaws — some, gaping wounds — over three weeks.

There’s a chance this season could be defined by the next wave of contenders. Oregon and Texas A&M, Georgia and Iowa all won easily. Penn State smothered Auburn in a sea of white, so confident of its dominance it could afford to punt on third down. James Franklin can now rightly ask USC to put another zero on that contract offer. It helped that Auburn used an old Gus Malzahn playbook on that final goal-to-go drive.

There’s a chance that, for the first time in years, some true underdogs could find their way to the penthouse. Cincinnati made its case against a Power 5 foe. Michigan State is 3-0. Michigan has been dominant. Rutgers has given New Jersey nearly as much to look forward to as the new “Sopranos” movie.

These are heady times in college football. If Saturday didn’t reshuffle the deck, it at least showed the game wasn’t rigged, and the house doesn’t always win. (In this analogy, Kansas is chain-smoking at the penny slots.)

But, there’s an even greater chance that Saban was simply toying with us, convincing us to let our guard down, giving his team a quick dose of rat poison repellant before Alabama again emerges as an unstoppable force overwhelming the college football season with the same ferocity as that horrific Applebee’s commercial (please, make it stop!).

This is still Alabama, after all. Saban and Co. are just fine watching you celebrate a moral victory. He’ll take the ones that count in the standings.

Panic Meter

Clemson’s offense is sputtering. Ohio State’s defense is a mess. Spencer Rattler‘s Heisman hopes are running thin. Is it time for fans to panic? We dig into the numbers to find out.

Clemson’s offense

Panic level: There’s a hole dug in the desert

We’re three games into the season, and D.J. Uiagalelei has more interceptions than TDs. The ground game has gone nowhere. Against two FBS foes, Clemson has a grand total of two touchdowns. It’s one thing to struggle against an elite Georgia defense. It’s one thing to play a bit flat against an FCS opponent. It’s another thing to have seven points on the board midway through the fourth quarter against a team that lost to Northern Illinois. The lack of a downfield passing game (Clemson didn’t have a completion of more than 17 yards Saturday) and the inability for the offensive line to open running lanes (the Tigers averaged 4 yards per carry) has put offensive coordinator Tony Elliott in an impossible position. Uiagalelei has a huge arm, but if there’s no one open downfield, it doesn’t matter. Will Shipley is an emerging star, but he can’t consistently move through a stacked box. Without another big-stage game left on the schedule, Clemson needs style points. Right now, Clemson’s style amounts to cargo shorts and a fanny pack.

Spencer Rattler

Panic level: The check engine light is on

Rattler is clearly a talented QB with tons of upside, but the bar for Lincoln Riley QBs is set awfully high, and thus far, he’s hovered well beneath it. Rattler was a pedestrian 23-of-34 for 214 yards and a TD in a 23-16 win over Nebraska, a second subpar effort after narrowly edging Tulane in the opener. But it goes back further than that. During Lincoln Riley’s first 39 games, Oklahoma topped 500 yards of offense 31 times. They’ve hit that mark in just six of the last 17 dating back to 2019, however, and Rattler has only done it against Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State (in a loss), and two FCS opponents, as well as last year’s bowl win over a disinterested Florida. So what gives? Has Riley lost his touch? Is Rattler failing to live up to his potential? Is it just those tough SEC defenses getting in Oklahoma’s head before it’s even joined the league? For now, we’ll call it a blip. There’s still a pretty thin Big 12 schedule ahead and plenty of time to get right.

Cincinnati’s playoff hopes

Panic level: Did we remember to turn the oven off?

Here’s the problem with using strength of schedule to determine playoff rankings: Cincinnati landed what should be an impressive win on the road at Indiana that included a dominant second half. But what if Indiana isn’t quite the team it was a year ago? The Bearcats should be able to earn a statement win for the committee in two weeks when it travels to Notre Dame. Only, the Irish have looked lackluster, at best, so far this year. What about that UCF game on Oct. 16? There’s not much shine left on the Golden Knights after Friday’s loss to Louisville. This was supposed to be the first year the Group of Five had a real playoff challenger with a schedule worthy of consideration — but team’s don’t control what their opposition does in those other 11 games. The Bearcats sure looked like they were capable of playing with anyone during a near-flawless fourth quarter against the Hoosiers, but don’t be shocked if we’re hearing the same old refrain about lackluster competition when the first set of rankings is revealed.

Notre Dame

Panic level: Our portfolio is heavy on GameStop

Jack Coan has been good. Through three games, the Wisconsin transfer is averaging 8.5 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and just two picks — one of which was a last-second heave at the end of regulation against Florida State. But that doesn’t mean the Irish don’t miss Ian Book. The problem? The O-line. While Book was exceptional at extending plays, scurrying out of the pocket, and scrambling when he needed to, Coan is simply not a runner. And last year’s Irish line was exceptional, with three members selected in the first three rounds of this year’s draft. Now? Up front, the Irish have struggled. Coan has been pressured regularly, and setting aside Kyren Williams‘ 51-yard TD run late in Saturday’s 27-13 win over Purdue, the ground game mustered just 69 yards on 33 carries. The next few defenses — Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech — are much tougher than Purdue’s. Things could get ugly fast for the Irish if the O-line doesn’t take a big step forward.

Ohio State

Panic level: The flight attendant is twirling a roll of duct tape

The good news: Ohio State racked up 316 yards on the ground against Tulsa — a 41-20 win that was much closer than the final score suggests — just 13 yards less than it had in its first two games combined. The bad news: That revamped defense still struggled, surrendering 428 yards through the air, one week after giving up 269 on the ground. If the defensive scheme is going to be some version of whack-a-mole each week, the Buckeyes could be waving goodbye to their playoff hopes by the end of October. Worse … Michigan might be good. The horror. The horror.

It’s a Sparty Party

Michigan State is 3-0 for the first time since 2015, the year it made the College Football Playoff. It beat Miami 38-17 Saturday, the third straight time the Spartans have scored at least 38 this season. In fact, Sparty hit that mark just three times total from 2018-2020. They have new life behind QB Payton Thorne (four passing TDs Saturday), have a monster back in Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III (172 yards rushing) and a stingy defense.

In other words, the Big Ten might have a legitimate surprise team on its hands.

Of course, the Spartans’ three wins have also come against a team whose season highlight involved a free-falling cat, an FCS foe and a Big Ten opponent that lost to Duke on Saturday. So perhaps we can temper the enthusiasm just a tad.

But here’s a hot take we hope you’ll forget when it looks silly years from now: We’re always wondering who might ultimately replace Nick Saban at Alabama (likely in 2063 after the Tide wins the national championship on the moon) and Mel Tucker should probably hold a prominent space in that conversation. He’s spent two stints with Saban (at LSU and Alabama), coached defense for three years in the SEC (at Georgia) and has a decade of experience in the NFL. While most of the other oft-mentioned names either seem unlikely to want to succeed a legend (Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart) or unqualified for the job, Tucker might be a name to watch in the years to come. Still, our prediction remains a Saban hologram powered by some sort of artificial intelligence he designed while killing time between recruiting visits.

We’ll always have 7-0

A week ago, Colorado scored a touchdown late in the first quarter against Texas A&M and went on to push the No. 5 Aggies to the brink before ultimately falling 10-7.

Those were high times for the Buffaloes.

Since taking that 7-0 lead, Colorado has run 93 plays and mustered a measly 226 yards — 2.43 per play — and a grand total of zero points.

Saturday’s 30-0 loss to Minnesota was particularly galling. Colorado finished with -19 yards on the ground and just 63 total yards for the game. That was the lowest yardage output by a Power 5 team since Kansas managed just 21 against TCU in 2017.

Week 3 shout-outs

This is a glass-half-full column, so here’s a little positive energy for some programs in need of a boost.

Congrats to … UConn!

Sure, UConn lost Saturday in yet another blowout — this time, 52-21 to Army — but on their 34th drive of the season against FBS competition, the Huskies finally scored points. The celebration in Stoors will long be remembered, and the statue commemorating Tyler Phommachanh‘s miracle (it’ll be made of popsicle sticks and elbow macaroni) should be done by week’s end.

Mad props to … Long Island University!

LIU’s grueling three-game stretch versus FBS teams has mercifully come to an end after a 42-7 loss to Miami (Ohio). For the Sharks (that’s their name, we looked it up), that brings the combined score through an 0-3 start to 156-17. The good news is, we finally know where all those D-I offers for Bishop Sycamore players came from. But unlike that makeshift high school, Long Island has an excellent academic reputation with, we assume, programs like Billy Joel studies and iced tea chemistry.

A tip of the cap to … USC!

Oh, sure, Saturday’s big 45-14 win at Washington State marked a nice turning point in the Trojans’ first game after firing Clay Helton. That they did it after starting down 14-0 and without QB Kedon Slovis, who left with an injury, is even better news. But what we really love about USC’s Saturday is this: The Trojans are now the rare team that, when someone says, “Remember that time that crazy thing that happened on an airport tarmac,” a person can reasonably reply, “Which one?

Heisman Five

When’s the last time so many preseason contenders have fallen off the radar so badly three weeks into the season? Rattler, Uiagalelei, Sam Howell, Tate Martell (wait, no, not him) — it’s been a struggle for all of them. So for now, it’s a two-QB race, and the rest of the class is wide open.

1. Alabama QB Bryce Young

It’s quickly becoming a one-man race as Young passed a big road test by throwing three TDs and avoiding any disasters in a raucous game at the Swamp. And unlike Mac Jones last year, Young is wisely spreading the ball around so he doesn’t have some pesky receiver up and steal the award from him.

2. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral

Rattler managed just two TDs in his game vs. Tulane. Corral doubled that total … by halftime. The Ole Miss QB continues to dominate, and the only thing better than the SEC West coming down to Nick Saban vs. Lane Kiffin would be a Heisman race between their two QBs, too.

3. Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker

Walker entered Week 3 at +7500 odds for the Heisman, but racked up 189 yards and a touchdown as Michigan State upended Miami. Walker is averaging 8.7 yards-per-rush through three games and has quickly become the country’s most productive back.

4. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud

It was an ugly day for Stroud, but his TD pass to Garrett Wilson proved decisive as Ohio State escaped another too-close-for-comfort game against Tulsa. The best news for Stroud is that the Buckeyes’ ground game had a huge day, which should make shutting down the Ohio State passing game a tougher choice for defenses going forward.

5. Michigan RB Blake Corum

The No. 5 spot in our rankings each week goes to an off-the-board candidate who deserves a little more attention, and Corum certainly turned heads in Michigan’s 63-10 win over NIU. Corum carried 13 times for 125 yards and three touchdowns in the win. He’s the first Michigan back to tally 100 rushing yards in each of his first three games since his position coach, Mike Hart, did it in 2007, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Under-the-radar play of the day

In the box score, it’s your average 94-yard punt return TD for MemphisCalvin Austin III. In reality, it’s sheer confusion (and was later revealed to be a blown call). The punt bounds toward the end zone but is batted back into play by Mississippi State, which then appears to down it at the 7-yard line. Instead, Austin races in, scoops up the ball, then dashes 93-yards into the end zone.

play

1:11

Mississippi State appears to down the ball on a punt, but Memphis WR Calvin Austin III picks up the ball and returns it 94 yards for a touchdown.

Under-the-radar game of the day

It was an old-school defensive showdown between SEC East rivals Kentucky and Tennessee and … oh, no, that was actually Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the FCS Mocs had a 16-14 lead over the Wildcats early in the fourth quarter. Only a 31-yard TD pass from Will Levis and a 95-yard pick six helped Kentucky stay undefeated. The Wildcats’ actual game against Tennessee should go much more smoothly.

play

1:11

Touchdown! Tyrell Ajian scores vs. Chattanooga Mocs

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