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College football winners and losers: Alabama, Georgia stand alone atop SEC ahead of massive matchup

Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
·12-min read

And then there were two.

Alabama and Georgia stand alone atop the SEC as the conference’s only two undefeated teams after Saturday. And guess what? They meet each other in a week.

The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs took care of business on Saturday as Florida lost at Texas A&M. And boy, did Alabama and Georgia win in different ways.

Let’s start with the Tide. Alabama gave up a staggering 646 yards of offense to Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels in a 63-48 win. Kiffin, whose team has scored at least 35 points in each of its first three games this season, gave Alabama’s defense everything it could handle and then some. But the Crimson Tide were able to turn two fourth-quarter Ole Miss drives into field goals and Ole Miss’ defense couldn’t do anything to slow down Alabama’s powerful offense.

How powerful was Alabama’s offense? The Crimson Tide had 723 total yards as Mac Jones threw for 417 yards and Najee Harris rushed for five touchdowns and 206 yards on just 23 carries. Oh, and both DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle had 100 yards receiving. The battle of former USC offensive coordinators and head coaches in Kiffin and Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian resulted in the most total yards of any SEC game in conference history (1,367).

Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) dances after breaking a Mississippi tackle and scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Alabama running back Najee Harris scored five TDs against Ole Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Georgia, meanwhile, used a stifling defense to throttle Tennessee in the second half. The Vols got the benefit of a few breaks in the first half and carried a 21-17 lead into halftime. But Georgia scored 27 points in the second half as its defense acted like a vise grip on the Vols’ offense.

Saturday night’s game between Miami and Clemson was our second matchup of top-10 teams in this wacky college football season. But the Hurricanes were 14-point underdogs entering the game and were only able to hang around against Clemson because they blocked three field goal attempts.

We’ve got a feeling that next week will be a far better marquee college football game.

Alabama and Georgia are two of the three best teams currently playing in college football. And, at this point, they’re the clear two best teams in the SEC. We thought Florida was up there with them, but the Gators lost by three on Saturday to a Texas A&M team that was blown out in Tuscaloosa a week ago.

The Crimson Tide will enter this game as a favorite. And probably rightfully so. Alabama will have home-field advantage and Saturday night’s win over Kiffin was Nick Saban’s 21st win over a former assistant. He’s never lost to a coach who worked for him. And as you know, Georgia coach Kirby Smart is a former defensive coordinator at Alabama.

But Georgia looks more than equipped to hang with Alabama. The Bulldogs have held opposing quarterbacks to just 6.5 yards per pass while allowing just 322 rushing yards through three games. Yeah, that rushing stat is inflated by Tennessee’s -1 rushing yard on Saturday, but it’s hard to quibble with a defense that’s allowed just 30 points through three games.

“Well obviously we’re going to have to play defense a lot better because they have a really good defensive team,” Saban told ESPN Saturday night.

The Bulldogs aren’t struggling on offense either. And Saban realizes that. Georgia has been very efficient ever since Stetson Bennett IV became the team’s quarterback midway through that opener against Arkansas. Bennett is averaging over eight yards a pass attempt and has five touchdown passes to no interceptions.

Even though the Big Ten and the Pac-12 still haven’t started their seasons yet, it’s not hyperbolic to say that next week’s game between Alabama and Georgia is the regular season’s game of the year. And if both teams keep winning after next week, we’re likely to see it happen again in December in Atlanta in the SEC title game.

— Nick Bromberg

Here are the rest of this week’s winners and losers.

Winners

North Carolina: North Carolina’s passing attack gets a lot of attention for good reason. But the No. 8 Tar Heels’ ground game was incredible in a 56-45 win over No. 19 Virginia Tech. UNC rushed for 399 yards on just 43 carries as Michael Carter had 17 carries for 214 yards and two scores and Javonte Williams had 20 carries for 169 yards and two TDs. Virginia Tech was able to close within a possession at two different points after UNC got a 21-0 lead, but the Tar Heels brushed aside the Hokies each time.

Missouri QB Connor Bazelak: Bazelak got his first career start on Saturday against LSU in less than ideal circumstances as Missouri was missing three of its top five wide receivers because of positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing. Imagine if Bazelak had a full array of offensive options.

The redshirt freshman was 29-of-34 passing for 406 yards in Mizzou’s 45-41 upset win over No. 17 LSU. Bazelak was unflappable in the pocket and did a great job finding open receivers in LSU’s haphazard defense. After seeing part-time playing time the first two weeks as Shawn Robinson’s backup, it’s hard to see how Bazelak isn’t the starter for Mizzou the rest of the season.

Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak throws during the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak threw for four TDs in the Tigers' upset of LSU. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Kansas State and Iowa State: On a day where Texas and Oklahoma played a four-overtime classic and No. 10 Oklahoma State had a bye, Kansas State and Iowa State quietly delivered wins that put them atop the Big 12 standings with perfect 3-0 conference records.

Despite missing starting quarterback Skylar Thompson, Kansas State went into Fort Worth and upset TCU 21-14. K-State opened the season by losing to Arkansas State but has reeled off three straight Big 12 wins since then over Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the Horned Frogs. No. 24 Iowa State, meanwhile, easily handled Texas Tech, 31-15. Brock Purdy threw for 302 yards and two TDs while Breece Hall rushed for 135 yards and two scores of his own. Both teams have a bye next week.

Arkansas: Arkansas may have lost to Auburn (in controversial fashion) on Saturday, but it still deserves some love for how much better it looks so far in 2020. The Razorbacks entered 2020 with a 19-game SEC losing streak, a streak that was extended to 20 in a Week 1 loss to Georgia. But Arkansas has shown so far that its competitiveness in that loss to UGA was not a fluke. The Razorbacks followed that up with a 21-14 upset win over No. 16 Mississippi State before Saturday’s near-upset over No. 13 Auburn — a team that has ex-Arkansas head coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator. It has been just three games, but it’s safe to say that Sam Pittman is an upgrade over Morris. A big one.

NC State: On the heels of a 4-8 season in 2019, NC State is off to a surprisingly strong start in 2020. The Wolfpack improved to 3-1 with a 38-21 road upset over Virginia on Saturday. While quarterback Devin Leary was the story in last weekend’s upset win over Pitt, this time it was the running game and defense. While the offense went for 179 rushing yards, the defense forced four Virginia turnovers. This pick-six by defensive lineman Alim McNeill gave the Wolfpack a 31-14 fourth-quarter lead and was one of the highlights of the weekend.

Boston College: Speaking of unexpected 3-1 ACC teams, how about Boston College? The Eagles improved to 3-1 by upsetting Pittsburgh 31-30 at home in overtime on Saturday. Pitt’s defense has been strong so far in 2020, but BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec, a Pittsburgh-area native, was able to gash the Panthers’ secondary for 358 yards and three touchdowns. Zay Flowers accounted for all three of those scores. He had a 44-yarder in the second quarter, a 77-yarder in the fourth quarter and then caught a 25-yarder in overtime.

Houston: The Cougars had five turnovers to Tulane’s none and still beat the Green Wave 49-31. It was a testament to just how good Houston was in its first game of the season on Thursday night. The Cougars had 476 yards to Tulane’s 211 and held the Green Wave to 1.6 yards per carry and just 11 completions on 25 passing attempts. Star wide receiver Marquez Stevenson had five catches for 118 yards and Mulbah Car rushed for two scores as Houston tries to build off of what was a tanking year in 2019. Next on the schedule is No. 15 BYU on Friday night.

Losers

LUBBOCK, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 26: Head coach Tom Herman of the Texas Longhorns, center, looks on during the first half of the college football game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on September 26, 2020 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
Tom Herman is 1-4 against Oklahoma. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

Texas coach Tom Herman: Herman’s record against Oklahoma is now 1-4 in four seasons after his team’s 53-45 loss to the Sooners. The only win for Herman against OU came in 2018 but the Longhorns then lost to the Sooners in the Big 12 title game.

It’s been rough for Herman in Texas since Texas was supposedly back after beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl after that 2018 season. The Longhorns were 8-5 in 2019 and are now 2-2 in 2020 after a loss to TCU heading into the Oklahoma game. Texas is a crazy comeback over Texas Tech from being 1-3 on the season and the Texas fanbase being even more unhappy with Herman than it already is.

Florida’s defense: The hype about Florida’s offense — namely the connection between QB Kyle Trask and TE Kyle Pitts — has been justified. But there were also concerns about the Florida defense, concerns that were magnified in a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. The Aggies gashed the Gators for 543 yards in the win — 338 through the air from Kellen Mond and 205 on the ground. Through three games, the Florida defense has allowed a total of 100 points. Florida’s 2019 defense didn’t surrender its 100th point until its eighth game. Yikes.

LSU’s defense: We all knew that LSU’s offense was going to take a step back in 2020. But no one imagined just how much worse the defense was going to be in 2020 under new coordinator Bo Pelini. The former Nebraska coach replaced Dave Aranda after Aranda went to Baylor and his scheme is getting torched so far this season. Mississippi State and K.J. Costello ripped apart LSU’s defense to start the season and the Tigers gave up over 580 total yards to a Missouri team that entered Saturday 0-2. LSU is clearly not a title contender — or even an SEC West contender — and Pelini’s defense is the biggest reason why.

Mississippi State: Perhaps we all got a little too worked up over Mississippi State’s Week 1 win over LSU. The Bulldogs fell to 1-2 after a 24-2 loss to Kentucky on Saturday. And boy, were the stats brutal. Mississippi State QBs threw 70 passes and six interceptions. Yes, MSU had three times as many interceptions as it did points. It’s a second straight ugly outing for Mike Leach’s offensive system after that surprising Week 1 win and the Bulldogs get a Texas A&M team off a big win against Florida next week. Is 1-3 in the cards?

Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano: Saturday’s game against Georgia was a big opportunity for Jarrett Guarantano. The talented senior quarterback has been plagued by inconsistencies throughout his career and looked good early, tossing two impressive touchdown passes. In the second half, though, the wheels came off. Guarantano fumbled three times in the second half and lost two of them. One of them was returned for a touchdown. He also threw a costly interception as Tennessee’s 21-17 halftime lead disintegrated into a 44-21 loss.

Pitt K Alex Kessman: The Pitt kicker has had a wild season so far. He missed his first three attempts of the year before connecting on six straight field goals entering Saturday’s game against Boston College. Against the Eagles, Kessman missed from 55 and 49 yards before drilling a 58-yarder with 40 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. In overtime, Kessman would have moved the game into a second extra period with an extra point. Instead, he missed and is now 119-of-124 on extra points in his college career. Brutal.

Louisville: Louisville was a team some had pegged as a possible dark horse in the ACC entering 2020. And after winning their opener over Western Kentucky, the Cardinals were ranked No. 18 entering a primetime matchup against Miami. Since then, though, the Cardinals have lost three consecutive games to drop to 1-3. UL lost to Miami 47-34, Pitt 23-20 and then to Georgia Tech 46-27 on Friday night. While the UL offense committed three turnovers, the defense allowed Georgia Tech to score three fourth-quarter touchdowns, flipping what was a 27-26 Louisville lead to a 19-point loss. Not good.

Western Kentucky: WKU won nine games in 2019 and looked like a legitimate Conference USA contender entering 2020. So far, that has not been the case. Not at all. The Hilltoppers have been miserable offensively and that continued in a 38-14 loss to Marshall. On its first 10 possessions, WKU mustered 106 yards of offense and zero points. By that point, Marshall had built a 35-0. The Hilltoppers put together two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to make it look a little more respectable, but it was smoke and mirrors from a team that lost to Liberty and barely beat Middle Tennessee.

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