Because it’s Alabama — and only because it’s Alabama — this is going to be more complicated than it needs to be.
If we lived in a logical world, Saturday’s 46-41 loss to LSU would be case closed. Alabama, which does not own a win against a top-25 team much less a good team, won’t win the SEC or even the SEC West and lost at home in the game it needed to win, should not be in the College Football Playoff. Barring some sort of nationwide catastrophe, there are going to be enough good options for the selection committee among a group of teams who have played better opponents and won conference titles that Alabama should be outside the very fringe of that discussion.
And yet, we know what’s going to happen over the next month. The SEC propaganda machine is going to kick into high gear, the excuses are going to flow in and the benefit of the doubt that the college football establishment gives exclusively to Alabama will creep into the discussion.
How is this going to end up? Who knows? But if we held Alabama to the same standard we hold everyone else, the conversation would be pretty black and white. When you get a top-10 opponent at home, and it’s the only top-10 team you play all year, you need to win that game. And if you don’t, you need to win your conference.
Alabama isn’t going to do either of those things. So what are really talking about here?
Even the aura of Alabama shouldn’t be enough — not this year. The Crimson Tide’s defense has been average at best and struggled badly against LSU, giving up 559 yards of offense and failing to get a stop in the fourth quarter when the game was potentially up for grabs.
While Saturday’s game was certainly tense and entertaining, it strains credulity to suggest that there’s a discernible difference between what we saw in Tuscaloosa and many of the other top teams this year. Alabama and LSU have tremendous offensive skill and speed, and they could both do damage in the Playoff if they got in, but they are not physically overwhelming enough to say with certainty that they are two of the four best.
With Ohio State and Clemson tracking toward the Playoff along with LSU, it is highly likely that Alabama will have a worse case for the Playoff on paper than the Big 12 or Pac-12 champion. Asking the committee to ignore that and excuse a close loss at home to LSU wouldn’t happen for anyone but Alabama.
Here are nine other observations from Week 11 of the college football season:
The Heisman looks more like a two-man race
If LSU quarterback Joe Burrow wins the Heisman Trophy, the play that will stick in voters’ minds is obvious. Third-and-2, two minutes left at Alabama, clinging to a five-point lead. If Alabama gets a stop, it’s suddenly a pressure field goal, and even in the best-case scenario for LSU the lead would only be eight points. So what does LSU do? It empties the backfield, calls a designed quarterback draw and puts the game in the hands of its best player for an 18-yard gain. For all intents and purposes, it was game over.
Burrow was almost flawless in the defining game of the college football season, completing 31 of 39 for 393 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 64 more. Along with LSU’s 46-41 win, it established him as the clear favorite to win the Heisman.
BRAGGING RIGHTS:LSU coach Ed Orgeron tells team: ‘This is our house now’
At this point, in fact, it seems like the only player who may be in position to challenge Burrow might be Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. No disrespect to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has been exceptional all year, but the time he missed with an ankle injury plus the pair of costly turnovers he committed in the head-to-head matchup against Burrow will knock him down significantly in the eyes of many voters. The candidacy of Ohio State defensive end Chase Young could very well be derailed by his suspension, depending how long it lasts.
That leaves Hurts, largely because of the absurd numbers he can put up, as the most likely challenger. Hurts did not play his best in the second half of Oklahoma’s 42-41 win against Iowa State and, in fact, threw an interception with 2:43 left that gave the Cyclones a chance. Still, Hurts was 18-for-26 for 273 yards and added five touchdowns (three passing). For the season, he’s accounted for 39 touchdowns in eight games.
Coach of the year looks like a great race
If the vote took place today for national coach of the year, it would be almost impossible to single out just one for the award.
One option would obviously be Ed Orgeron, whose team is ranked No. 1 and just beat Alabama for the first time since 2009. But more than that, LSU is 9-0 because Orgeron made a big change in the program to hire Joe Brady as passing game coordinator and unlock an offense that had been stuck in the mud for the entire decade. LSU always has great talent, but finding the best way to use it is what coaching is all about.
Also in the mix would be Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who is authoring the year’s most improbable story with the Gophers now 9-0 after beating Penn State.
And just as deserving as anyone is Baylor’s Matt Rhule, whose team came from behind and pulled off another close win against TCU, 29-23, in a third overtime. When Rhule came from Temple, Baylor was facing a near-death penalty type of situation but has gotten the Bears to 9-0 in three short years. With Oklahoma and Texas both coming to Waco this month, Baylor has an incredible chance to make the Big 12 championship game.
Maybe the results going forward will sort out who ultimately wins the award, but these are three incredible coaching jobs with very little to separate them this year.
Clemson is finally in full flight
Dabo Swinney may not think it’s “worth the brain cells” to debate where his team should be in the College Football Playoff rankings, but it’s clear the Tigers felt some disrespect in being placed No. 5 by the committee this week. And Swinney may have a point in his accusation that people are unfairly discounting Clemson based on one shaky performance.
The Tigers, as they usually do, are picking up steam late in the season and now look much more like a reigning national champion that brought back most of its offensive talent from last season. Clemson’s 55-10 win against N.C. State was as much of a statement as the Tigers could possibly make that they’re done messing around. The game was a rout almost from the start, as Clemson scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, led 42-0 at halftime and basically played backups the rest of the way.
The only off note came at the end, when Clemson decided to add on an extra touchdown in the final seconds rather than go into victory formation when it was clear N.C. State was fine with letting the clock run out. The Tigers did not need to score with 11 seconds left to make their point, but they did — even throwing the ball one play before the touchdown — which looked a little bit tacky on Swinney’s part. Maybe it was a “style points” statement for the committee. Or perhaps it was the product of some animus with coach Dave Doeren, who accused Clemson of using a laptop on the sideline two years ago (which Clemson said was for social media upload).
All that drama aside, it’s a little bit disingenuous for critics to say Clemson has struggled this year. Outside of the close call against North Carolina in which the Tigers had to stop a two-point conversion to win, their margin of victory has been 38, 14, 35, 42, 31, 35 and 45 in the rest of their games. Sure, the ACC is bad and Clemson had some rough-looking moments on offense early in the season but they have been dominant all the way and are finally clicking on offense the way we all expected.
Gophers’ ranking will be fascinating
Nobody in college football had more to prove Saturday than Minnesota, and nobody delivered as much to completely alter the way people view their program. The Gophers’ 31-26 win over No. 5 Penn State was a validating performance because it did not look at all like a fluke. Though Minnesota got a bit conservative late and nearly gave Penn State a chance to steal it, there was no doubt that the better team won.
Minnesota is now 9-0 and very much for real, at least from the standpoint of winning the Big Ten West. Though there was plenty of reason to be skeptical of the Gophers’ record given the lineup of tomato cans they’d beaten earlier this year, they took advantage of their big moment with 460 yards of offense and got two key interceptions early from Antoine Winfield, Jr. Minnesota also played a pretty disciplined game with five penalties for 40 yards and one turnover.
It will be interesting to see how the CFP committee evaluates the Gophers, who were No. 17 last week. How many of the one-loss teams like Utah and Oklahoma and Georgia do they pass? That will tell us a lot about how seriously they take Minnesota. The Gophers still have two tough games left against Iowa and Wisconsin, but they certainly look like they’ve got a chance to win the Big Ten West.
King of the Carolinas
Tip of the cap to Appalachian State for a pretty special double this season, winning at both South Carolina and North Carolina. The Mountaineers were able to hang on in Columbia for their first win against the SEC, beating the Gamecocks 20-15 after South Carolina got it to first-and-goal with 19 seconds left.
Appalachian State received a $900,000 payday for the game, but as college football’s original giant-killer, the pride of beating a Power Five school is worth far more than the money. Appalachian State has come a long way since the 2007 upset of Michigan when it was just a powerhouse FCS program. Now it’s in the Sun Belt and a consistent pest any time it shows up on the schedule. Though North Carolina and South Carolina are both pretty mediocre teams this year, beating both in the same year is huge for Appalachian State’s regional credibility. And if things fall the right way, having two Power Five wins could bolster the 8-1 Mountaineers’ case to get a Cotton Bowl bid if Boise State and the American Athletic Conference champ pick up a second loss.
Florida State bounces back
After what must have been a difficult and emotional week in Tallahassee, the Seminoles responded to Willie Taggart’s firing by going to Boston College and collecting their most impressive win of the season, 38-31. “Guys came out and played for Coach Odell,” receiver D.J. Matthews told the Associated Press. Matthews was referring to Odell Haggins, who is in his second stint as interim coach in the past three years and has been on the Florida State coaching staff since 1994. And this win was pretty important for the Seminoles, as it puts then within reach of a bowl game at 5-5 with Alabama State coming in next week. Of course, it also brings up an interesting question: Had Taggart remained the coach, won this game and finished the season 6-6, would that have been good enough for him to come back next season? Maybe not, but making a bowl game for Taggart in Year 2 rather than two consecutive losing seasons would have potentially put a slightly different light on his tenure.
Western Kentucky beats Arkansas with former QB
Despite declaring Saturday that he’s the right guy to turn Arkansas around and that he knew how long and difficult the rebuild was going to be, the Razorbacks’ 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky was a loss that Chad Morris will have real difficulty coming back from.
Much like Florida State and Taggart, nobody wants to fire a coach two years in — especially when there’s a $10 million buyout to consider. But Morris hasn’t beaten a Power Five opponent and is racking up the humiliating defeats against the likes of North Texas and Colorado State last season and San Jose State earlier this season.
Given that standard, nobody could have been surprised at Saturday’s loss to a fairly competent program, albeit one that plays in Conference USA. But what makes the loss look even worse for Morris is that Western Kentucky quarterback Ty Storey played well, completing 22 of 32 passes for 213 yards while rushing for 77 more. Storey was a celebrated four-star recruit from Charleston, Arkansas, who played in 10 games for the Razorbacks last year but lost his starting job and transferred when it became clear Morris was bringing in a different group of quarterbacks.
That kind of thing happens all the time in college football when new coaches come in, but it certainly doesn’t flatter Morris that the guy he really didn’t want has thrived at Western Kentucky, including a triumphant return to Fayetteville.
Once Arkansas officially decides to move on from Morris, one of the biggest stories in the sport will be whether the Razorbacks make yet another run at Auburn’s Gus Malzahn just as they did two years ago.
Malzahn decided to stay at Auburn for a massive seven-year, $49 million contract, but he was coming off an appearance in the SEC title game at the time. Malzahn is far less popular now, and if the Tigers end up 8-4, it may be a much tougher choice if Arkansas offers him a lucrative life raft.
Fuente on fire
About six weeks ago, Virginia Tech fans were ready to run Justin Fuente out of town after a very ugly loss at home to Duke. But amid numerous questions about whether a slew of player departures had corrected the Hokies’ locker room culture like Fuente promised, it appears Virginia Tech is back on stable ground and playing its best football late in the season.
Though the Hokies were disappointed last week to let a very winnable game slip away at Notre Dame, they bounced back Saturday with a commanding 36-17 win over No. 20 Wake Forest and could be tracking toward a scenario where the ACC Coastal division title comes down to their season finale against Virginia.
Though Virginia Tech may not be in as good of a position as its fans hoped this far into Fuente’s tenure, he’s got a great chance for an eight- or nine-win season and the team has clearly improved since September. It’s about a million times more likely at this point that Fuente gets pursued by someone with an opening come this December than Virginia Tech firing him. In other words, it’s not going to happen.
Illinois going bowling
One of the nicest visuals Saturday was Lovie Smith getting carried off the field on the shoulders of his players after Illinois came from three touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter to stun Michigan State, 37-34.
It’s really an amazing story to see Illinois get bowl eligible at 6-4 given where it was earlier this season. After consecutive home losses to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska followed by a road blowout at Minnesota, it started to have the look of a program that might be preparing for a change. At that point, Smith’s record at Illinois was just 11-31 with very few quality wins to suggest he was heading in the right direction. But almost out of nowhere, Illinois has won four in a row and beaten two of the Big Ten’s traditionally strong programs in Wisconsin and Michigan State. In both of those games, they were down multiple scores and mounted furious fourth-quarter comebacks capped off by last-second heroics. This time, it was Brandon Peters finding Daniel Barker for a 5-yard touchdown with five seconds remaining.
Illinois hasn’t had this kind of hope for its program in a long time. Maybe it’s just a blip, but given how far down the school has been, getting back to the postseason is undeniably worth celebrating.