Starting 11: How Long Is Tua Out Edition?

As we enter the last week of football in October the playoff race could be exceedingly simple or chaos could emerge.

Here’s the simple version of the playoff: Oklahoma, Clemson, Penn State or Ohio State and Alabama or LSU all finish 13-0 and win their respective conferences.

Boom, we barely even need a selection committee.

But that’s far too simple for college football.

We’ve never had a four team playoff featuring four undefeated conference champions and I doubt we’ll have one this year either.

So who steps up and brings us chaos in the ACC, the Big 12, the SEC, or the Big Ten? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, let’s get rolling with the Starting 11.

1. How long is Tua out and how good is Alabama without him?

This is the biggest question in college football right now because Tua, I believe, takes Alabama from a top ten team to a national title contending team. (That is, I think Bama would go 10-2 this year without Tua because the rest of the Tide team is good, not great.)

Bama has Arkansas in Tuscaloosa this coming Saturday, which should be an easy win even without Tua because the Razorbacks might well be the worst team in the SEC. Then the Tide have a bye week before LSU comes to town.

So essentially Tua has three weeks to get healthy from his ankle sprain.

Can he be 100% by then? He better be because otherwise I don’t think this Bama defense can keep LSU from scoring a bunch of points. And I’m not sure a Bama team with Mac Jones can even keep this game that close.

But here’s a playoff wrinkle for you, what happens if LSU wins in Tuscaloosa because Tua isn’t healthy and then Bama wins out with Tua coming back? Could the 11-1 Tide, which lost to LSU with an injured Tua, find itself as the top team if a one loss team gets in the playoff mix? Definitely.

So that’s worth paying attention to as the playoff race begins in earnest.

Of course Alabama has to finish the season at Auburn as well regardless.

And without Tua I believe Bama would lose this year to LSU and at Auburn.

But, remember, LSU gets Auburn this coming weekend in Baton Rouge. So we’ll have to see what happens in that game as well.

That game will be a war.

2. How did Wisconsin manage to lose to Illinois as a 31 point favorite?

I mean, this is the second absolutely shocking college football result in as many weeks.

Last week, however, when you looked at the box score from South Carolina-Georgia you could see that the Bulldog offense turned the ball over four times, including one interception returned for a touchdown, and it was one of those wild college football games that happens occasionally, where a clearly superior team lets an underdog hang around and misplays itself into a loss.

Well, it happened again, only this week it was Wisconsin.

And this week it was an even bigger upset — Illinois was a 31+ point underdog to Wisconsin compared to South Carolina’s 21+ point underdog status to Georgia.

Wisconsin had the ball for nearly 41 minutes against Illinois, but turned the ball over three times, including a crushing and indefensible late interception decision that gave Illinois a chance to win the game on a field goal.

How many times do you think a team that holds the ball for 41 minutes loses in college football?

It has to be incredibly rare.

I will say Wisconsin’s rush attack was bottled up very well by Illinois, which was surprising, but Wisconsin’s defense gave up three big plays for touchdowns: a 48 yard touchdown pass, a 43 yard run, and a 29 yard touchdown pass.

Those defensive lapses are shocking because of how good the Wisconsin defense has been this year — posting four shutouts in six games entering the game against Illinois.

Having said all of this, Wisconsin’s still likely in the same place they were before they lost to Illinois. If the Badgers were to win out, they’d probably still be in the playoff at 12-1.

What this does do, however, is raise an interesting question in the Big Ten West.

If Wisconsin loses to Ohio State next weekend — as many assume they will — then Minnesota, which is likely to go to 8-0 next week against Maryland, could have a two game lead in the Big Ten West with four games to play.

Meaning, you guessed it, Minnesota could be heading to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten title.

Who had that coming into the season?

3. What’s up with Georgia?

This Bulldog offense is flat out atrocious.

I’m not sure if it’s Jim Chaney, the offensive coordinator at Georgia leaving for Tennessee, or the lack of explosive wide receiver playmakers — maybe it’s both — but Georgia is downright hard to watch on offense.

Jake Fromm last night passed for 35 yards and he completed nine passes. Nine completed passes for 35 yards!

You think that’s bad, Kentucky was 2/16 for 17 yards passing.

I know it was raining, but it’s highly alarming that a week after South Carolina upset them in Athens the Bulldogs didn’t score on Kentucky until there was 6:20 left in the third quarter.

Now Georgia has a week off before three straight games against challenging opponents: Florida, Missouri, and at Auburn.

Right now it appears to me that Florida is trending up and Georgia is trending down.

The Bulldogs still figure to be a four point favorite or so in two weeks against Florida, but given Mizzou’s inexplicable loss to Vanderbilt that game will decide the SEC East.

And I’m not sure I can bet on Georgia to beat Florida right now.

The Gators are moving in the right direction and it appears Georgia is moving in the wrong direction.

Can Kirby Smart get that changed in two weeks? He’d better.

4. After a fifth year of failure what happens with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan?

In his two biggest road games of the year Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines fell behind 35-0 at Wisconsin and 21-0 at Penn State.

Now barring Penn State and Ohio State both losing multiple games in conference Michigan is likely eliminated from Big Ten East contention and likely to play Ohio State at the end of the year with only a chance to play spoiler in that game.

So what happens with Harbaugh? Does he bolt for the NFL or stay in Michigan and continue to take his Big Ten lumps?

Five years ago Harbaugh rode into Ann Arbor as a conquering hero with the idea he was going to revolutionize Michigan football, immediately interject the same vim, vigor, and vitality that Urban Meyer did for Ohio State.

And what’s happened?

Nothing really.

Michigan’s not a bad football team, but they lose just about every big game that matters.

Maybe the Wolverines will beat Notre Dame next week and notch a top ten win, but even then will Michigan fans feel like 9-2 headed into the Ohio State game is a successful season? (And that’s assuming a win over Michigan State, which has been a big presumption of late).

With Urban Meyer leaving, Michigan returning its quarterback, and Ohio State coming to Ann Arbor with a new coach and a new quarterback this was supposed to be the year Harbaugh finally won his division and played for the Big Ten title.

If not now, Michigan fans wondered, when?

Instead, it’s more of the same, failure on the biggest stages.

The sad reality for Michigan fans is this — you’re unlikely to do better than Harbaugh, but he’s not going to be anything other than a good coach. He’s not going to be dominant, he’s not going to win multiple national titles, hell, he might not even win you a single Big Ten title.

Right now Jim Harbaugh isn’t close to Saban or Dabo or Urban, he’s a less successful Mark Dantonio.

And I don’t see any reason why that’s going to change.

5. Can Penn State challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten East title?

Penn State was just okay against the Wolverines on Saturday, but just okay is fine when you’re 7-0 and poised to ascend to the top five in the country as the newest polls come out.

So how does Penn State’s schedule look from here?

Pretty tough.

The Nittany Lions go to Michigan State next weekend. That might not sound like a terribly tough game given the Spartan performance so far this year, but Penn State has lost four of its past five to the Spartans, including two losses the past two years by four points or less.

So let’s say Penn State finds a way to get that win. Then they get a bye week before traveling to undefeated Minnesota, who will be likely to be 8-0 and playing the biggest Golden Gopher home game in decades.

Then sandwiched between two easy wins against Indiana and Rutgers is a road game at Ohio State.

I mean, that schedule is really tough, especially with a young team.

That’s why I don’t see any way Penn State goes 12-0.

Meanwhile Ohio State closes with Wisconsin — which doesn’t look as difficult after what happened to the Badgers at Illinois –Penn State and at Michigan along with what should be easy wins against Maryland and Rutgers.

So that’s not an easy finish for Ohio State either, but I do like their odds better at getting to 12-0.

Regardless, the likelihood is that the Big Ten East title will come down to Penn State at Ohio State on November 23rd.

And I just find it tough to believe Penn State is going to go into Columbus and win, something they haven’t done since 2011. (It is worth noting that the past three games between these two teams have been decided by five total points, including two straight Ohio State comeback wins by a single point.)

6. Are Clemson and Oklahoma going 13-0?

I think so, but given the upsets we’ve seen the past two weeks for Georgia and Wisconsin maybe chaos will beckon for one or both of these teams, which may not have the luxury of a loss.

What are OU’s remaining challenges? Baylor is still unbeaten and it will be a road game, but the talent gap between OU and Baylor is pretty substantial. And, yes, Bedlam always brings pratfalls, particularly when it’s on the road but Oklahoma State is sitting at 4-3 and looks very average so far.

Then OU would need to play a rematch against a team with nothing to lose in the Big 12 title game.

So there are still some stumbling blocks here, but OU will be a big favorite in all of their remaining games

As for Clemson, it’s even easier. The Tigers are going to do the unbelievable — play an entire season without a single top 25 opponent on the schedule. (I mean a team that finishes in the final college football playoff top 25.

Here’s what Clemson has left in the regular season: Boston College, Wofford, at NC State, Wake Forest and at South Carolina.

Maybe, possibly, Will Muschamp’s team can get up and provide a challenge in that final regular season game.

But if they do it will probably be more of a challenge than whichever team emerges from the ACC Coastal can provide.

Right now it looks like UVa might be the team that emerges and heads to the ACC title game, but the ACC is such a dumpster fire outside of Clemson who knows what will happen there?

7. Oregon got a big road win over Washington to go a long way towards locking up the Pac 12 North. 

But the Ducks are likely on the outside looking in for the playoff even though a 12-1 schedule seems downright possible, probable even.

Which leaves me with this question: what if Oregon plays an easy home opener for a guaranteed win instead of Auburn?

There’s lots of talk about the necessity for teams to play challenging out of conference schedules, but what’s not talked about as often is this — no undefeated 13-0 big five conference champion has ever been left out of the playoff. Are you really telling me that if Oregon finished 13-0 — with ten wins in the Pac 12 — that the Ducks wouldn’t be in the playoff?

I just don’t buy that logic.

I think if Oregon had scheduled an easy win in week one they’d be in better position to make the playoff than they are with a loss to Auburn on their schedule. (Sure, an Auburn win would have helped the resume if the Ducks finish 12-1 or 13-0, but I think the risk in playing this game is probably better than the reward would have been).

8. Just when you think Derek Mason is finished at Vanderbilt his team pulls off a shocking upset over Missouri.

The Missouri loss will get overshadowed by the Wisconsin loss at Illinois, but this win for Vanderbilt is nearly as stunning as the South Carolina win at Georgia.

I thought Mizzou could sneak into the SEC East mix this year, but this loss to Vanderbilt is a huge blow to that idea.

It’s also a stunning win for Vanderbilt because I’d pretty much penciled in the Commodores as the worst team in the conference this year, which likely left Derek Mason being fired at the end of the year.

Instead now Mason has a lifeline to keep his job.

By the way, can we pause here for a moment and consider how bad Arkansas is in year two under Chad Morris?

Auburn ran for 298 yards on them yesterday.

298!

Maybe Arkansas can beat Mississippi State in Fayetteville, but if not Chad Morris is going to start his tenure with the Razorbacks 0-16 in the SEC. In fact, right now Arkansas is 1-19 in their last 20 SEC games.

In fact, of the second year SEC coaches, Dan Mullen is far and away the most successful, but I think you have to put Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee team above both Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Chad Morris at Arkansas in the program status department. And that’s even with the Vols standing at 2-5 following the Alabama loss.

At least Pruitt’s Vols team, which started the year off awfully, is showing some decent signs of improvement. (If you weren’t watching this game Tennessee turned a potential touchdown to make it a one score game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter into a 100 yard fumble return.) The Vols were roughly even with Alabama on the offensive and defensive lines when it came to the run game this year, something we haven’t seen in this series in a long time.

Meanwhile Mississippi State and Arkansas are both regressing in a hurry in year two, which is typically a good early test of a coach’s ability at a program.

And while we’re talking SEC, the officiating in Florida-South Carolina and Tennessee-Alabama was absolutely abysmal.

Just atrocious.

9. My Heisman Top Four

1. Joe Burrow

2. Tua

3. Justin Fields

4. Jalen Hurts

10. Outkick’s National Top Ten

1. LSU

2. Ohio State

3. Alabama

4. Oklahoma

5. Penn State

6. Clemson

7. Florida

8. Auburn

9. Georgia

10. Notre Dame

11. SEC power rankings 

I’m going to be honest with y’all, after the top five here, I really don’t have a good read on the rest of the SEC right now. Right now I’ve got South Carolina at six just because they’re the only team with a win over any team ranked in my top five.

1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Florida

4. Auburn

5. Georgia

6. South Carolina

7. Texas A&M

8. Missouri

9. Ole Miss

10. Tennessee

11. Mississippi State

12. Kentucky

13. Vanderbilt

14. Arkansas

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