Ten takeaways from a momentous weekend in college football:
1. Lane Kiffin has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of money as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. He has largely deserved both of those things. But if anyone thought the cornerstone of the Crimson Tide was anything other than Nick Saban and defense, they’ve been seduced by sidebars and ignored the big picture.
Kiffin’s offense was barely more useful than a hood ornament. The Tide produced two scoring drives, two turnovers, one touchdown and multiple misfires. Yes, ‘Bama was facing a powerful LSU defense, so some struggles were expected. But this was largely a case of having to just avoid losing the game with critical errors offensively.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s defense totally dominated the LSU offense. Which is the basic building block of six straight Tide victories in this series. The Tigers have averaged just 10.5 points and 234 yards in those six losses – puny numbers for an elite program.
This trickles down from Saban, a defensive master his entire career. Don’t be confused by the Cult of the Coordinator. This is not attributable to Kirby Smart, the previous defensive coordinator who is now struggling in his first season as a head coach at Georgia – he was not the key to the Tide’s defensive prowess. Nor is new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt the mastermind. This all goes back to the head coach.
2. When the final tale is told on Leonard Fournette’s LSU career, it will be clear that Alabama buried his Heisman Trophy chances twice and beat him three times. In 2014, the star running back was considered the heavy Heisman favorite before being throttled by the Crimson Tide defense – Fournette had just 31 yards on 19 carries, the worst game of his career.
Barely. Because Alabama shut him down every bit as completely this year, too.
Fournette had 17 carries for 35 yards, with a long run of nine. He also caught a single pass for eight yards.
In three games against Alabama, Fournette has totaled 57 carries for 145 yards – just 2.5 yards per carry, with a single touchdown scored. A guy who has been incredibly difficult for the rest of the SEC to stop has been completely smothered by the one opponent that matters most.
3. Ed Orgeron needed more than a Cajun accent and a player-friendly vibe to have a shot at the full-time LSU job. He needed to beat Alabama. The LSU coaching search moves on.
4. Texas A&M was valued more highly by the College Football Playoff selection committee than anyone else when the first rankings came out Tuesday. It only took one game for the No. 4 Aggies to make the committee look foolish. They fell behind dismal Mississippi State 28-7 and stayed behind throughout in a loss that ends any hope the Aggies have of either winning the Southeastern Conference Western Division or making the playoff. (Reminder: Mississippi State lost to South Alabama earlier this year and was 2-5 coming into that game.) A&M can claim the shoulder injury to quarterback Trevor Knight as a mitigating factor, but last I checked he doesn’t play defense and the Aggies gave up 35 points and 574 yards to the Bulldogs. The two questions in the aftermath of that Aggie gag are these: Which playoff contenders benefit most (Washington, Ohio State, Louisville)? And does A&M have yet another November swoon in it (Aggies are 3-7 in league games in that month since 2012)?
5. The answer to the former question may well be the No. 6 Buckeyes, who atomized Nebraska 62-3 in Columbus – a game that was overshadowed by
Ohio State has been fitful offensively for weeks, but the Buckeyes had a 590-yard game that showcased their most efficient passing in more than a month. That’s welcome news heading into what should be manageable road games against Maryland and Michigan State, which serve as prelude to the cataclysmic regular-season finale against Michigan in the Horseshoe.
Certainly, beating a ranked team by 59 points figures to move Ohio State up to No. 5 with the committee, keeping it ahead of Louisville. But it shouldn’t budge the Buckeyes past Washington. If you can’t beat two-loss Penn State, you have no claim to being ranked ahead of the Huskies.
6. Speaking of the Huskies: they traveled to take on a California team that was unbeaten at home and destroyed the Golden Bears, 66-27, to erase whatever unsubstantiated doubt the selection committee had over their inclusion in the top four.
Washington blitzed Cal’s suspect defense, with quarterback Jake Browning hooking up with speedster John Ross six times for 208 yards and three touchdowns. That has become one of the top pass-and-catch combinations in the country, as Ross continues his rebound season after a knee injury cost him all of last season.
Having cleared that hurdle, the undefeated Huskies now have three challenges left: resurgent USC at home next Saturday, at Washington State the day after Thanksgiving, and a potential Pac-12 championship game against either Colorado, USC (again) or Utah (again).
7. As noted from Baylor’s season-opener, the school set itself up for an uncomfortable year by retaining
As Baylor’s tawdry sexual-assault story has continued to unspool, with disturbing headlines still being produced on a fairly regular basis, fans chose Saturday as a time to set up a stand and sell pro-Briles merchandise outside the stadium prior to the Bears’ game against rival TCU. Specifically, shirts that read #CAB – “Coach Art Briles” – similar to gear worn by some staff members way back on Sept. 2. A pregame ESPN report that the players chose to wear all-black uniforms to honor Briles was refuted by the team.
Then the Bears were utterly blown out by TCU. Regardless of why they wore the all-black uniforms, the team inside them wasn’t very good and isn’t a strong threat at this point to win the Big 12. If Baylor football just went away for the rest of this season and started over in 2017, how many people would miss it, as it is currently staffed?
8. In what has been an utter plague year for the Big 12, there are two offensive players on incredible rolls and worth mentioning:
Texas running back D’Onta Foreman became the latest to shred Texas Tech’s pitiful defense, ringing up 341 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. That gives Foreman 591 yards in the past two outings, on 65 steely carries.
And Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook continued his tear through the conference with 131 yards and a touchdown against Iowa State. In his last six games, Westbrook has compiled 1,011 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.
Even in a league that has quit playing defense, those numbers for Foreman and Westbrook are remarkable.
9. Most meaningless game of the year, in retrospect: Michigan State 36, Notre Dame 28, on Sept. 17. At the time, we thought it meant that the Spartans were going to be good. After seven straight losses, they’re clearly not – but they did beat the Fighting Irish in South Bend, which means they’re better than Notre Dame.
Since that night, the tail-spinning tandem is a combined 2-11. Just two of the losses are to ranked teams. The latest: Michigan State lost to miserable Illinois, and Notre Dame was beaten by Navy. Midwest Dumpster Fire of the Year is clearly a competition between these two teams.
10. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino clearly didn’t like having his one-loss team ranked seventh in the first College Football Playoff rankings. It led him to surmise that perhaps the team leading the nation in scoring (50.2 points per game) needs to do even more going forward to impress the committee.
“It’s sad because there’s something called sportsmanship, but maybe I made a mistake,” Petrino told ESPN.com after bludgeoning Boston College 52-7 Saturday. “Maybe looking back at it, in Florida State (when the Cards scored 63 points), we should have kept all the starters in and scored 80 points and did that. But I don’t understand why it’s like that. I really don’t.”
Of more importance for Louisville would probably be not needing a last-minute touchdown to beat Virginia, which was the case Oct. 29. Not losing, and not coming close to losing, will be the 8-1 Cardinals’ primary task in their final three games (Wake Forest, at Houston, Kentucky). They got a break with Texas A&M being upset, but still need more help to get into the playoff.
One area where Louisville absolutely leads is in the Heisman Trophy race, with quarterback Lamar Jackson accounting for seven more touchdowns against Boston College’s top-10 defense. The sophomore now has thrown 26 TD passes and run for 19 touchdowns, while accumulating more than 3,500 yards total offense.
Browning, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen continue to present compelling cases for Heisman consideration. But Jackson continues to dominate the race.
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