- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
You come at the king, you best not miss.
That’s a quote from “The Wire,” but there is a good chance the writers of that show stole it from Nick Saban.
Saturday was supposed to feature a wounded Alabama. It was a week of turmoil amid Saban’s COVID-19 test that, apparently, was a false positive. It was a week in which the defense was rightfully questioned following a dismal performance against Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss last weekend. It was a week in which the balance of power in the SEC appeared to teeter just a bit into Georgia’s favor.
But we’ve been here before, right? Twenty-two times to be exact.
On Saturday night, Kirby Smart lost to his mentor once again, as Georgia fell 41-24 to Bama, the third crushing blow (see 2017, 2018 below) in the past few years, again in a storyline that felt familiar. Georgia lands a blow, then another and another. Alabama appears to be on the brink of despair. And then it all turns — a twist ending that doesn’t exactly inspire much surprise.
In the 2017 season’s title game, Georgia led 13-0 at the half. It lost.
In the 2018 SEC championship game, Georgia led 21-14 at the half. It lost.
On Saturday, Georgia led 24-20 at the half. It lost.
And though we weren’t sure Saban would even coach in this game until Saturday afternoon, he has now run his record against former assistants to an astonishing 22-0.
That Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones had another terrific day — posting numbers through four weeks that rival his predecessor, Tua Tagovailoa — is another astounding feet of Alabama wizardry. There was a time when Saban won, year after year, with QB mediocrity. Now he churns out All-Americans like they’re Pez. Jones finished Saturday with a ridiculous 417 yards and four TDs to burnish his increasingly impressive Heisman Trophy résumé.
Jones’ success deserves platitudes, but he is working with some of the best offensive players in the business. Darth Vader orchestrated a heck of an empire, but dominating the galaxy is easier with a Death Star.
The thing is, there have been more than a few reasons of late to wonder if perhaps Alabama has a weakness too. Saturday marked the first time since 2006 that the Tide allowed 21 points or more in the first half of back-to-back games. It was only the second time since 2008 that Bama allowed 24 points or more in three straight games. It was the first time since 2011 that Saban went to the half without a lead in consecutive games.
And what did it all mean?
Sure, Alabama has faltered over the years. And yes, LSU offered lightning in a bottle in 2019, leaving Alabama in its dust. These were speed bumps. The power structure reshuffled momentarily, only for order to be quickly restored.
That’s what Saturday was all about.
Think you’ve got Alabama figured out? Good luck stopping Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie III and … Seriously, Georgia was arguably the best defense in the country coming into Saturday’s game, and still the Bulldogs crumbled under the weight of the Tide’s talented skill guys.
Is the defense still elite? There have been cracks in the armor. But look around college football: It’s all offense. Alabama is just representative of the times, a unit still rocking the denim jacket and listening to REO Speedwagon but suddenly not looking so cool. But hey, denim and REO Speedwagon are still pretty great, and the Crimson Tide showed in a dominant second half that they’re no pushover.
This wild season still has its share of twists and turns ahead, to be sure. But make no mistake about how the SEC’s power structure stacks up today: It’s Alabama — and then a bunch of teams still trying to find the secret to Saban’s magic.
Clemson drops 73(!) points on Georgia Tech
It was an embarrassingly poor performance from the vaunted Clemson offense.
Sure, sure, you might point to the first 55 minutes of action when Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers hung 73 on Georgia Tech, but that was all window dressing. Let’s focus on the most important thing: the final drive.
Clemson gained just 24 yards on seven plays and its quarterback — who, admittedly, was also its punter — completed only two of his three throws. The result? A punt. Was Will Spiers purposefully ruining the offense so he could get a chance to punt? We can’t rule that out.
OK, so maybe we’re digging a bit here. What else can you do to recap a 73-7 performance that was as dominant as Clemson has ever looked? It was the most points the Tigers scored since beating Furman 94-0 in 1915. Which begs the question: Why didn’t Dabo Swinney keep his foot on the gas? Surely, if Lawrence had played another couple of drives, Clemson could have hit 100.
The Tigers have now won 37 straight regular-season games, the third-longest streak in the AP Poll era, trailing only the 1953-57 Oklahoma Sooners, who won 45 straight, and the 2000-03 Miami Hurricanes, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Saturday’s victory had Lawrence throwing for 390 yards and five touchdowns — in the first half. It had defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney running for a touchdown. It had fourth-string QB Hunter Helms throwing two TDs of his own. At one point, Travis Etienne ran for a touchdown while drinking an Ocean Spray and lip-synching Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” (Note: We don’t really understand TikTok, but we wanted to engage with the younger demographic.)
But, if you’re tired of watching all these Clemson blowouts, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Up next is the most recent team to beat the Tigers in the regular season: Syracuse. Just don’t do any research on how the Orange are doing now.
The Big Blue defense dominates
Kentucky did what seemed impossible on Saturday. It won in Knoxville. The Wildcats hadn’t gone on the road to beat Tennessee since “Ghostbusters” was in theaters, “where’s the beef?” became a catchphrase, and the last great Van Halen album was released (RIP Eddie).
It was clearly something to celebrate.
And if you didn’t know any better, you might assume Kentucky was rolling right along after winning its past two games by a combined score of 58-9. And if you were talking about the defense, you’d be right.
While the Wildcats have won two straight blowouts, they’ve totaled just 451 yards of offense in the two games. How strange is that? Only two teams in the past decade have had two wins by 20 points or more without topping 300 yards of offense in either game in a full season. Kentucky has now done it in back-to-back weeks.
Credit Mark Stoops’ tremendous defense, which has 10 takeaways in the past two games and has matched its own offense in touchdowns, each with three.
Welcome to the panic room
With the Big Ten and others on the brink of opening their seasons, a few teams around the country are already wondering if their 2020 campaigns have reached a breaking point, including an ugly Saturday for Syracuse, Auburn, Tennessee, Notre Dame and others.
So, is it time to panic?
Step back in the time machine all the way to November 2013. Auburn won two miracle games — on a tipped pass against Georgia and the infamous Kick Six vs. Alabama — to advance to the SEC championship and, subsequently, the national title game. Those were high times on The Plains. Since then? A seemingly endless stretch of mediocrity. In fact, Gus Malzahn is now 33-30 vs. Power 5 opponents since the Kick Six, including Saturday’s latest flub to unranked South Carolina. The bigger concern is that supposed savior Bo Nix was again entirely middling, but that belies the real splits. Nix is 8-1 at home with 11 TDs and no interceptions (vs. admittedly below-average competition), and his numbers away from Jordan-Hare are downright brutal: 58.5% completions, 5.68 yards/pass, 10 touchdowns and 10 picks.
Tennessee QBs: Don’t panic.
Jarrett Guarantano threw two first-quarter pick-sixes in Tennessee’s loss to Kentucky, and Vols’ QBs are now just 27-of-49 for 203 yards and four picks in their last six quarters of action. But what are you going to do if you’re Tennessee? Dismissing Guarantano is like bad-mouthing your friend’s ex, knowing full well they’ll get back together again in a week or two. Such was the case for Tennessee fans. After pulling Guarantano following his second INT, Harrison Bailey came in and immediately threw a pick of his own. Truth is, this Tennessee team was never going to win the SEC East on the arm of its QB, but Guarantano still is the best option to win a few more games this year.
Notre Dame receivers: Panic!
Sure, the Irish came away with a 12-7 win over Louisville and remain undefeated, but let’s temper any enthusiasm by offering a reminder that its opponents are just 1-13 vs. other FBS foes. A bigger worry — particularly if the Irish hope to topple Clemson for an ACC title — is the absence of a downfield passing game. Ian Book was just 11-of-19 for 107 yards against Louisville, and through three games, the Irish wide receivers have just two TDs and three completions of 20 yards or more. Without finding some sort of threat on the outside, Clemson’s defense will be licking its chops.
Mike Leach’s offense: Don’t panic.
After a slow start against Texas A&M, Mike Leach set a new mark in his long career — his longest stretch without a touchdown. From late in the third quarter against Arkansas two weeks ago to early in the third quarter against the Aggies in Saturday’s loss, Mississippi State totaled two points — coming from a Kentucky safety. Even still, in the three games after a record-setting opener vs. LSU, Leach’s crew has managed just 30 points total. That’s pretty bad, but it’s not exactly out of character for a Leach rebuild. In his first season at Texas Tech, he had five games when scoring less than 20, and his team averaged just 25 points per game. The rest of the way with the Red Raiders, he averaged 38 points per game. At Washington State, he had six games of 20 or less points his first season, and the team finished 3-9, averaging just 20 points per game. The rest of his career, he averaged 29. Leach’s system is a simple one, but it still doesn’t typically change a team overnight.
Justin Fields hits the field next week. Trevor Lawrence offered a five-touchdown exclamation point on his Heisman resumé Saturday. The SEC’s top QBs remain in contention.
But look outside the big names, and there are plenty of players having big seasons who probably won’t need to make room for a Heisman in their trophy cases. We figured this was a good time to give them a little love, too. These are our top five under-the-radar, probably-not-gonna-happen candidates.
1. Virginia Tech RB Khalil Herbert
He had only played three games before this weekend, but the Virginia Tech tailback entered Saturday leading the nation in all-purpose yards with 739. Against BC, he added a whole lot more to those totals. Herbert ran for 143 yards in the Hokies’ 40-14 win, becoming the first ACC back to do that since Matt Dayes in 2015. For the game, Herbert finished with 223 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
2. Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall
Raise your hand if you had Coastal Carolina at 4-0 to start the season. The Chanticleers are now well positioned to win the Sun Belt after upsetting Louisiana on Wednesday, and McCall is a huge reason why. The freshman QB is averaging nearly 11 yards per pass and has accounted for 14 touchdowns and just one pick so far.
3. Arkansas State QBs Layne Hatcher and Logan Bonner
Can we slice the Heisman in half and give a part to each of these guys? (Note: The Heisman is filled with chocolate.) In the last decade, only Texas Tech has had two different QBs throw for three touchdowns in the same game multiple times, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Arkansas State has now done it in each of the last two weeks. The Red Wolves two-QB system is producing big results, with Bonner and Hatcher combining for 1,834 passing yards and 21 TDs through five games.
4. UCF QB Dillon Gabriel
With the Knights riding a two-game losing streak, it might be easy to overlook their QB, but that would be a mistake. Gabriel was brilliant Saturday against Memphis, throwing for 601 yards and five TDs without a pick, while running for another score. For the season, he’s averaging 9.3 yards-per-pass with 14 TDs and 2 interceptions.
5. Arkansas S Jalen Catalon
All due respect to Grant Morgan, the senior linebacker who had 19 tackles, three tackles for loss and a pick Saturday, but there’s a good case to be made that the biggest difference in the Razorbacks’ defense in 2020 is the addition of the redshirt freshman safety. Catalon had nine tackles, a pick and a fumble recovery in Saturday’s win, and his 45 tackles puts him near the top of the SEC leaderboard. A year ago, Arkansas’ secondary allowed more than 8 yards per pass. So far this year, they’re allowing just 5.5.
Travis leads the Noles
Even in a win, Florida State doesn’t make it easy. But two North Carolina drops on the final two throws of the game gave the Seminoles their biggest win in years, 31-28 over North Carolina, and a huge moment for coach Mike Norvell.
Truth is, Florida State hung on. The defense struggled in the second half. The offense shot itself in the foot. And if you’re a pessimist, it would be easy enough to find reasons to diminish the celebration. But don’t be that person. This is FSU, a team desperate for some good news, and on Saturday, it came.
The difference for FSU was the quarterback, and Jordan Travis has offered a spark that the program has desperately needed. He led a comeback win over Jacksonville State three weeks ago. He gave Notre Dame fits last week. And on Saturday, he was the guy still making plays even when the rest of the team seemed to be crumbling around him.
How good has Travis been?
Since the start of last season, Florida State has averaged 5.42 yards per play, 7.45 yards per pass and 3.27 yards per rush when Travis was on the sideline. When he is been on the field, the Seminoles average 7 yards per play, 9.3 yards per pass and 6.1 yards per rush — nearly twice their average without him.
Syracuse: It’s almost basketball season.
Getting crushed by Liberty at home is bad. Having the Flames taunt you on social media is even worse. Can Jim Boeheim fix this somehow? There’s no chance the 2-3 zone would have allowed Liberty to run for 338 yards at home.
Best bets and bad beats
West Virginia backers likely weren’t feeling too good about their bets when Kansas jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but of course, this is still Kansas we’re talking about. The Jayhawks seemed pleased to call it a day after the early lead, and the Mountaineers quickly reeled off 38 straight points. It should have been an easy cover as West Virginia kicked off with 1:45 to play, but Pooka Williams Jr. returned the kick 92 yards to the end zone, leaving all parties disappointed with a push. But hey, at least it was a nice moment for anyone who had the over. The TD pushed the total to 55, covering the over by 5.
The line closed at 11.5, but with the availability of Pitt QB Kenny Pickett in doubt throughout the week, Miami had been favored by as much as 14 at times. Depending on when you grabbed it, the final two minutes might have proved awfully frustrating. Miami led by 12, drove to the Pitt 15 with 1:48 to play, then ran out the clock by taking a knee the rest of the way. If you bought in at kickoff, there was no stress. But if you had Miami -12 or more from earlier in the week, you were likely begging Manny Diaz to just kick a field goal and run up the score a tick more.
It is not typically a wise decision to give 27 points backing a road team, but Clemson offers more confidence than most teams. It’s far less often you can flip the channel at halftime when you’re giving 27 on the road. But again, Clemson is a little different. The Tigers hung 52 on Georgia Tech in the first half and cruised to a 73-7 win that was just the latest easy cover for the Tigers. Dabo Swinney has made a habit of taking the first few weeks of each season as a chance to play nutty professor with personnel and the playbook, but when the calendar hits October, there’s no stopping Clemson. In games after the first Saturday in October, the Tigers are now 17-3 in the past three seasons, including covering 13 of their last 14 — the lone exception coming against LSU in last year’s national championship game.
Eastern Kentucky was oh-so-close to pulling off a shocker at Troy. EKU had already been dealt blowout losses to Marshall and West Virginia in games against FBS foes, and it was a 27-point underdog on the road against a solid Trojans team. But a 4-yard TD pass with 21 seconds to go Saturday gave the Colonels a 29-28 lead that would’ve paid out at +1600, according to the Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. But no such luck for what was certainly a huge club of EKU backers. Troy returned the ensuing kickoff to its 40, completed back-to-back passes of 15 yards, and then booted a 47-yard field goal to win it, 31-29. Even better? The total for the game was 60, and the field goal resulted in a push.
Overreaction of the week
Trevor Lawrence threw an interception, his first in nearly a year. Georgia Tech’s Zamari Walton intercepted a Lawrence throw late in the first quarter Saturday, ending a streak of 366 throws without a pick. That left Lawrence just 12 shy of matching Russell Wilson’s ACC record. But despite this egregious performance, we’re going to predict the Clemson QB is going to move past the interception and still will be pretty good moving forward.
Under-reaction of the week
Sam Pittman is the coach of the year and it doesn’t matter what happens from here. Sure, it’d be tough to vote for a guy who could still finish 2-8, but we’d do it anyway. Arkansas beat Ole Miss 33-21 on Saturday, winning its second SEC game of the season, something that hasn’t happened since 2016. In fact, from 2017 through 2019, the Razorbacks won just two games total in SEC play. And had it not been for a controversial call a week ago against Auburn, Pittman’s team would be 3-1 right now. Short of UTEP making a late playoff push, there’s no chance anyone is writing a better comeback story than Pittman is at Arkansas.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Is there ever a bad UCF-Memphis game? In 2017, the American was settled with a raucous 62-55 UCF win in double overtime, when Memphis erased a 48-34 fourth-quarter deficit and McKenzie Milton accounted for more than 550 yards and six TDs. In 2018, they played twice. The first was a game where UCF trailed 30-14 late in the third quarter but won 31-30. Then in that year’s AAC title game, UCF used a 21-point fourth quarter to win 56-41, too. So, could the Knights rip the heart out of Memphis again Saturday? It sured looked that way as UCF led 35-14 in the second half, but it all fell apart as Memphis QB Brady White engineered a ridiculous comeback, taking a 50-49 lead with 1:08 to play, only to see Dillon Gabriel march the Knights downfield into field-goal range … but miss from 39 yards out. It marks the first time UCF has lost consecutive games since November, 2016.
Under-the-radar (re)play of the week
Louisville had just scored to take a 7-6 lead against Notre Dame. Scott Satterfield called for the on-side kick, and the Cardinals appeared to execute it beautifully, recovering the kick poised to deliver a dagger to the Irish. Instead, a replay caught Louisville blocking a Notre Dame player before the ball went 10 yards, and officials threw a post-replay flag, forcing the Cardinals to kick again. This time, they booted it deep, Notre Dame drove 66 yards on eight plays and scored on an eye-popping Ian Book run. That proved to be the difference in the game. So, kudos to the officials for getting the play right — even if it took replay to get there. On the other hand, they also moved the chains after an 8-yard run on first down on the next drive, so perhaps keep the pats on the back to a minimum.
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