- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Last week, the sport’s leadership met to discuss the merits of expanding the College Football Playoff. It amounted to nothing. On Saturday, Alabama and Georgia offered a convincing counterargument. Perhaps we should just end the 2021 season after the SEC championship game.
For all the September buzz about chaos and parity in 2021, college football emerged from Week 5 with a clear line of demarcation. There is Alabama. There is Georgia. Everyone else amounts to little more than fries and a Coke, complementary pieces to complete your combo meal.
There was more chaos further down the pecking order. Five top-12 teams lost — Oregon, Arkansas, Florida, Notre Dame and Ole Miss — while upstarts like Michigan State, Michigan and Oklahoma State kept plugging along. Ohio State got its confidence builder against Rutgers. Clemson escaped another embarrassment, but the Tigers’ offensive woes remain. But it was all window dressing to the two heavyweights at the top.
In Tuscaloosa, Lane Kiffin previewed the competition by telling fans to get their popcorn ready. Not since “Tenet” has such a request been followed by such a baffling performance. A year after Ole Miss hung 48 on Alabama, Kiffin’s offense flubbed fourth-down tries on three of its first four drives, all but handing the game to Alabama, as Bryce Young and the Tide took advantage of the good field position to build a 35-0 lead, ultimately winning 42-21.
“Get your popcorn ready.” – Lane Kiffin 🍿 pic.twitter.com/ZDdr60cjuj
In Athens, Stetson Bennett IV slipped out of his smoking jacket and monocle (which we assume is standard attire for anyone named Stetson Bennett IV) and stepped into the starting lineup for the Bulldogs. The injury to JT Daniels might have been a serious blow in a top-10 matchup against Arkansas, but on Saturday, the Dawgs hardly needed a quarterback at all. Georgia ran the ball 56 times, devouring Arkansas’ 3-2-6 defense, while its own front held the Hogs to a woeful 162 yards of offense.
Afterward, Kirby Smart summed up college football’s power structure perfectly.
“Either you’re elite or you’re not,” Smart said, obviously unaware of Joe Flacco’s existence. “There’s no gray area.”
Alabama left no gray area. For the past five years, Nick Saban’s Tide teams have been defined, at least in part, by Kiffin’s influence — up-tempo offenses, tons of points and an aerial assault. But on Saturday, Saban swaggered out of the wine cellar at Bryant-Denny with a vintage varietal, an old-school performance of power run game and dominant defense. Saban ran his record against former assistants to 24-0, but this was more than just proving he was still the master. He had to show the world he didn’t need a single drop of ink that Kiffin had added to the playbook to do it. He delivered a knockout blow with one hand tied behind his back, just to say he could do it.
Georgia, too, went old school. Leaning on the run game came by necessity, but it was nevertheless impressive. The same Arkansas defense that shut down Texas star Bijan Robinson last month gave up three rushing TDs to the Bulldogs, while four different Georgia backs tallied at least 10 carries and 48 yards. Meanwhile, the defense is verging on historic. UGA has now faced two teams ranked in the top 10 and allowed a grand total of three points. In three SEC games, the Georgia defense has surrendered just one touchdown — a garbage-time score by South Carolina. It’s the only time any opposing offense has found the end zone against Georgia in five games. Georgia’s last national championship came after QB Buck Belue completed just a single pass. It’s possible that game plan could work for these Bulldogs, too.
There will be two other teams in the College Football Playoff, of course. Perhaps Cincinnati will be one of them. The Bearcats got a long-awaited signature win, beating No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend for a win that might finally convince the committee that the Group of Five can produce a great team. Perhaps Penn State will run the table, or Ohio State will rebound to win the Big Ten, or Oklahoma, despite yet another narrow win over an unranked opponent, will find its form.
It’s true, too, that championships aren’t handed out in October. (Or, for that matter, September. Sorry, Pac-12.) There’s still time for things to change, for the power dynamic to be tipped once more, for another genuine challenger to emerge. It was, after all, just two weeks ago that we wondered aloud if Alabama had been exposed by Florida — foolish as that seems now.
But the scariest thing about Saturday for the rest of the college football world was that it hardly seemed like the ceiling for Alabama and Georgia. They played dominant football, while seemingly having more in the tank.
Indeed, you’re either elite or you’re not. And right now, that’s a particularly exclusive club with membership offers to just two teams. Heck, Stetson Bennett’s already got the smoking jacket.
If Alabama and Georgia are clearly the best teams in the country, there’s still some real debate about who’s next in the pecking order. After Week 5, there are 15 remaining undefeated teams. We sorted them into tiers behind the Dawgs and Tide.
Tier 2: Like a “Fast and Furious” movie, just try to enjoy them without overthinking it
Cincinnati, Oklahoma and Penn State
Want to nitpick? There’s ample room.
Certainly, the committee will look for any flaws it can find for Cincinnati, but with Saturday’s 24-13 win at Notre Dame, the Bearcats finally have enough to push back.
At Oklahoma, the fans are booing the starting QB, which is typically not ideal for a playoff contender. Spencer Rattler played relatively well Saturday (completing 22 of 25 throws), but it was another close call for the Sooners. Style points aren’t part of the playoff formula, but it’s also worth mentioning that no team has ever made the College Football Playoff with more than four one-possession games against unranked foes. All four of Oklahoma’s FBS wins this season have come by a TD or less.
Then there’s Penn State, which has three wins — at Wisconsin, vs. Auburn and Saturday vs. Indiana — that looked a lot better on paper in August than they look in the standings now.
Tier 3: “You’ll get nothing and like it”
Michigan, Iowa and Kentucky
The Wolverines picked up another win Saturday, 38-17, over Wisconsin. Was that impressive? Well, the Badgers’ offense is basically the same as watching paint dry. In fact, that about sums up the entirety of Michigan’s opposition this year, which also includes NIU, Rutgers and Washington, all woefully incompetent with the football. But Michigan did throw three TD passes Saturday — two more than it had managed in the past three games combined — so perhaps there’s some real upside. At the very least, every time Michigan scores, Jim Harbaugh celebrates like he’s in one of those “Don’t be like your parents” commercials, and it’s just delightful.
The Hawkeyes’ defense has 16 takeaways in five games. The Hawkeyes’ offense often includes 11 players. Is that a formula for a Big Ten title? We’ll find out a lot more against Penn State next week.
Kentucky was out-gained by 158 yards Saturday. The Wildcats managed just 13 first downs. They completed seven passes. But hey, they won, thanks to 15 Florida penalties and a blocked field goal that was returned for a TD. QB Will Levis has made headlines throughout this run by noting that he eats bananas with the peel on and puts mayo in his coffee, and if Kentucky’s run goes on much longer, he’s liable to do something truly disgusting like eating Skyline chili.
You’re right to want more from these teams. On offense, they range between bad and dumpster fire. And yet, here we are. No one’s going to enjoy the ride, but we’re on board anyway.
Tier 4: The Bracket Busters
Coastal Carolina and BYU
Can these two teams just play a random game they scheduled three days earlier again this year? Please, college football. Make this an annual thing.
Tier 5: The “Ted Lasso” teams that everyone keeps telling you are actually pretty good but you just haven’t found the time to actually watch
Michigan State, Wake Forest and Oklahoma State
Is there a real contender in this bunch? Wake escaped with a dramatic 37-34 win over Louisville on Saturday, and its schedule sets up nicely for a strong run into November. With Clemson reeling offensively, anything seems possible in the ACC. Meanwhile, Michigan State appears destined for a battle of undefeated teams against Michigan on Oct. 30. Oklahoma State could have easily lost its first three, but Mike Gundy only listens to the news he likes, so the Cowboys might just be the best team in the country.
Tier 6a: Admit it. You forgot about UTSA, right?
Meep, meep. The Roadrunners are 5-0 and about to drop an anvil on Western Kentucky’s head next week.
Tier 6b: There’s no way you remembered that Wyoming was undefeated
The Cowboys beat Montana State by three and UConn by two. If there’s such a thing as moral victories, those were both moral losses.
So long, Pac-12
Oregon was up seven with 2:21 to play and had a first down deep in Stanford territory. What could go wrong? Well, it’s the Pac-12, so it’s best never to ask that question. The Ducks ended up punting from the Stanford 43, allowed the Cardinal to drive the length of the field, got flagged for defensive holding as time expired, then served up the game-tying TD before losing in overtime. If college football fans in the Pac-12 were still capable of feeling, it would’ve been a gut punch. Instead, it marks the second time in three years the Pac-12 is without an undefeated team after five weeks — something the other Power 5 leagues have done just once in the playoff era, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Clemson wins ugly
Clemson’s offensive problems didn’t find many solutions on Saturday, but the Tigers still managed to come away with a win, 19-13 against Boston College.
“It wasn’t beautiful,” Dabo Swinney said afterward, “but we needed a win.”
Clemson moved to 3-2, but the Tigers have yet to crack 20 points against an FBS opponent. On Saturday, they managed 438 yards of offense, which did mark a significant step forward after failing to crack 300 in any of their prior three FBS games. They finished just 3 of 15 on third and fourth down. QB D.J. Uiagalelei didn’t throw a TD. They endured myriad injuries, too, including starters Will Putnam, Braden Galloway and Justyn Ross. Swinney said afterward that Ross suffered a head injury, but isn’t likely out long-term.
Afterward, Swinney called the game “momentum going into an off week,” which might be a nice way of saying the Tigers survived long enough to get an extra week off before running into another brick wall.
How bad have things been?
Since Swinney became the full-time coach in 2009, Clemson has never scored fewer than 96 points in regulation through its first four FBS games. This year, the Tigers have managed 50.
Auburn rallies behind Nix
Matt Damon in “Rounders”: “Some people, pros even, won’t play No-Limit. They can’t handle the swings.”
Auburn fans during the Bo Nix era: “Hold our beer.”
A week ago, Nix was benched as the Tigers narrowly escaped Georgia State. This week, Nix racked up 329 yards of offense, threw a TD, ran for another and engineered a fourth-quarter comeback to beat LSU in Death Valley.
The Bo Nix Experience has taken years off the lives of Auburn fans, but Saturday’s performance was a reminder of just how good the junior QB can be when things go right. Replaced by T.J. Finley for a series early in the game, Nix returned in the second quarter to lead Auburn’s first TD drive and never sat again. Trailing 19-17 with 6:57 to play, Nix led an 11-play drive that included an 11-yard run, a 10-yard completion and a critical conversion on third-and-three at the LSU 15.
Next up is Georgia, and given his history, Nix will either pull off a miracle or accidentally set the locker room on fire while trying to make a panini.
As much as Alabama-Ole Miss figured to be a showdown between Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin and a battle for the SEC West, it was also a matchup of the top two contenders for this year’s Heisman. When it was over, there was only one contender remaining. This is now Bryce Young’s award to lose.
1. Alabama QB Bryce Young
Young didn’t pad his stats any, but a few short fields and 33 handoffs to Brian Robinson made for a box score — 241 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT — that was more than enough to win and pull away from the rest of the competition in the early Heisman race. While Young’s overall stats certainly compare nicely with his predecessors — Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts — what’s perhaps more impressive is how cool and confident he looks even in the most pressure-packed situations.
2. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral
Corral didn’t make any critical mistakes, and if, perhaps, Ole Miss had converted a couple of those fourth-down tries, things might have turned out differently, but the result was still emphatic. Alabama’s defense was terrific, and Corral managed just a garbage time TD pass on the biggest stage he’ll see this season.
3. Texas RB Bijan Robinson
If some of the initial buzz died down after the loss to Arkansas, Robinson reignited the Heisman hype with 216 yards and two scores in a 32-27 win over TCU. It’s Robinson’s fourth 100-yard effort in five games, and he’s quickly established himself as a true bell cow in the Texas backfield. He’ll be the centerpiece for Texas in the Red River game against Oklahoma next week, meaning Robinson will have a chance to make a real push toward upping his Heisman odds.
4. Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder
It wasn’t the sexiest line in a box score Saturday, but Ridder made a number of big throws when Cincinnati needed them most against Notre Dame, including a 36-yard completion to Leonard Taylor that set up a Ridder TD run that all but sealed the Bearcats’ first-ever win over a top-10 team. Overall, Ridder threw for 297 yards and two TDs, ran for 26 more with a TD and put the Bearcats squarely in the middle of the Playoff conversation.
5. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett
Each week, we use the No. 5 spot to highlight a guy who isn’t likely to get national consideration but deserves a bit of the spotlight. Pickett might bridge that gap if he keeps up his recent pace. He threw four touchdowns in a rout of Georgia Tech, adding 410 yards of offense. The Pitt QB, now in (we’re pretty sure) his 12th season, has tossed 15 TD passes in his past three games — two more than he’d ever thrown in a full season, breaking Dan Marino’s school record for TD passes in a three-game stretch.
Under-the-radar game of the week
In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart delivered the lasting definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” This was in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, but it might’ve been more appropriate for UConn vs. Vanderbilt. The Huskies last beat an FBS team in 2019. Vandy last scored during the Taft administration. Forcing others to watch this game was barred by the Geneva Convention.
And yet, this game had real drama. Vandy was up 27-16 midway through the fourth quarter, coughed up successive scoring drives to the Huskies, then drove 47 yards in 1:07 to set up a game-winning field-goal attempt. Of course, UConn head coach Lou Spanos then used three straight timeouts to ice the kicker because no one wanted to see this game end, and also because former coach Randy Edsall gets $1 for every unused timeout (It’s in his contract.). But, in the end, Vandy kicker Joseph Bulovas booted the 31-yarder for the win. And if you enjoyed all of that, well, we’ve got good news for you. Next week, UConn gets UMass. Some people just want to watch the world burn.
Under-the-radar play of the week
Check out this Purdue cheerleader doing her impression of the Boilermakers’ performance vs. Minnesota.
This is INCREDIBLE 😂 pic.twitter.com/SQd41ZPBvN
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