Starting 11: Six Dominant Teams Emerge Edition

We’re 25% of the way through the college football regular season — I know, I know, it doesn’t seem fair to me either — and at this point in time it appears there are six really good teams and the rest of college football is fairly far behind these six teams.

You can rank these six teams however you would like — Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Clemson — but I think the question is, can anyone beat these six outside of the six themselves? At least the three SEC schools all play a round robin, the other three might not play a team that can beat them on their schedules.

We’ll see whether that’s the case or not.

Maybe, just maybe you can make an argument that Auburn is also on that level, but I think even the most diehard Auburn fan in the world doesn’t believe this.

So where do we go from here?

Let’s dive into the Starting 11 and discuss:

1. There’s a possibility of three SEC teams making the playoff this year. 

While the SEC haters out there may be truly disgusted by this option, I actually think it’s the most likely way to guarantee college football playoff expansion. Just as Alabama and LSU playing for the title in an all SEC title game back in 2011 brought us the four team playoff, I think three SEC teams in the playoff would bring about an expansion in the college football playoff.

But first, how would three SEC teams make the playoff?

The easiest way is this: Alabama wins out, finishing 13-0, Georgia wins out, but loses to Alabama in the SEC title game, finishing 12-1. LSU wins out, but loses a competitive game at Alabama in November, finishing 11-1. This would mean the SEC would have non-conference wins over Texas, Notre Dame, and Oregon, pushing all three of those teams behind the three SEC teams. (Georgia or LSU could also win out, leaving Alabama at 11-1 and the Georgia-LSU loser at 12-1 so it doesn’t have to be the exact way I laid it out above to put all three SEC teams into contention.)

Then you’d need a one (or two loss champion) to emerge from the Pac 12, Big 12, and Big Ten. (Or you’d need Clemson to lose two games, which looks almost impossible given their remaining schedule and how weak the ACC is.)

Given that Oklahoma and Ohio State appear to be the two best teams from the Big 12 and the Big Ten, what would happen if both teams lost a game, let’s say to Texas and Michigan for instance. How could you put a one loss Oklahoma, with that loss to Texas, in over LSU when the Bayou Bengals would have gone on the road and beaten Texas? I don’t think you could. And how could you put Ohio State in when Michigan, who I believe will have at least two losses before the season is over, would have beaten Ohio State? I don’t think you could.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen, or even likely to happen, but the three SEC teams in the playoff scenario is certainly very possible.

And if Georgia beats Notre Dame on Saturday night, given the injuries the rest of the SEC East have already had at quarterback, it’s almost impossible to see the Bulldogs not being in Atlanta to play for the title.

The rest of college football would demand a change if this happened, which would put us, I believe, at eight playoff teams, which is the perfect number.

2. What’s up with Trevor Lawrence?

Lawrence threw two more interceptions against Syracuse, pushing his season total on interceptions to five, one more than he had in the entire season last year.

Maybe it’s just Lawrence having too much faith in his arm and his receivers — which could certainly be the case — and maybe it’s just that Clemson is so much better than everyone else in the ACC — which could also certainly be the case — but it’s a bit alarming how he’s performed so far this year.

He hasn’t been Heisman worthy at all and it’s hard to see him having a chance to make a major statement in the college football regular season given how bad Clemson’s opposition is likely to be.

It’s downright alarming how awful the ACC is this year.

Clemson may become the first team in the playoff era to go the entire season without playing a single top 25 team from its own conference, including in the title game.

Look at this remaining schedule for the Tigers: Charlotte, at UNC, FSU, at Louisville, Boston College, Wofford, at NC State, Wake Forest, at South Carolina.

I don’t see any remaining teams that will be ranked on this schedule and I don’t see any teams that can even keep it within twenty points left on this schedule.

And who in the world is going to play Clemson in the ACC title game? Everyone in the ACC Coastal already has a loss except for Virginia and does anyone have any faith in the Cavaliers putting up much of a fight?

In fact, look at the results from the ACC this past weekend: Georgia Tech loses to Citadel, Kansas beats Boston College by 24, Pittsburgh loses at Penn State, West Virginia beats NC State by 17, and Furman loses by just seven to Virginia Tech after being up 14 points.

As if that weren’t enough, the league also announced they blew the final play call — there should have been a second left on the clock — in the Duke-Wake Forest game.

I mean, this conference, other than Clemson is downright atrocious.

What a rough year to launch the ACC Network.

3. Is Alabama’s defense any better than average this year?

The Tide gave up 459 yards of offense to South Carolina, including 324 yards passing from freshman Ryan Hilinski. (I’m going to be seeing that touchdown pass with 11 seconds left for the cover in my nightmares for at least a week.) In fact, Hilinski dropped back to pass 57 times and was only sacked three times by the Bama defense. What has to be even more alarming to Nick Saban? His defense only got one interception, even with Hilinski dropping back to pass on third down on double digit occasions. That’s pretty bad, especially for the Tide defense against a freshman quarterback.

But what would also alarm me is how bad Alabama’s rushing attack was — the Tide ran the ball 25 times for just 76 yards.

Furthermore, if you subtract penalties from the total yardage Alabama — with 479 total yards — only outgained South Carolina — with 427 yards — by 52 total yards in this game. (If the fake field goal touchdown isn’t called back for holding it’s effectively even.)

That’s not domination.

Not even close, actually.

Yes, Tua is flat out incredible, so good that the Miami Dolphins appear to have gone into full tank mode to give themselves the opportunity to draft him first overall, but he’s masking a truth: this Alabama defense and this Alabama rushing attack is the most average they have been under Nick Saban in a very long time.

It may be the case that Tua is simply so good the Tide can outscore every team they play all season long, but imagine what happens if Tua gets injured again this year? There’s no Jalen Hurts waiting in the wings. Would the Tide be any better than a top ten team without Tua?

I don’t think so.

Now, as for the calls in this game, I think the SEC needs to stop and review borderline calls involving scoring plays. (I know, I know, the league says it reviews every play, but is it possible to do a good job of review that quickly on huge plays like late in the first half when South Carolina’s running back was ruled down short of the goal line?)

I think the Gamecock runner was down near the goal line, but shouldn’t the game have been stopped just to make it perfectly clear? And the instant replay crew completely whiffed on a Bama touchdown that ended up being a field goal.

Late in the third quarter Tua hit his tight end for a first down that was marked out at the four yard line. But the Bama tight end’s foot never went out of bounds.

It should have been a touchdown.

Now that play didn’t impact the overall outcome of the game, but what if it had? You simply can’t miss on a call like this, especially not when you have a crew reviewing plays.

If you’re going to stop the game to review targeting calls with 11 seconds left then how can you not stop and review a potential scoring play? Those plays matter so much I’d err on the side of getting it right even if it extends the game.

4. Urban Meyer watch is in full effect.

But so is Bob Stoops watch.

With USC’s loss to BYU in the same week that athletic director Lynn Swann was fired, Clay Helton’s job security became far more ominous.

USC plays Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame in its next three games. Going 1-2 is probably the best case scenario here.

If Helton lost all three a new athletic director, who may well be hired by then, would face an interesting decision: is it time to pull the plug on the Helton era? The Trojans would be sitting at 2-4 at that point, but the second half of the season is far more manageable so Helton might be able to claw himself back.

So if you want him gone that could well be when he is at his weakest point.

Losing all three would make Helton 7-11 in his last 18 games as USC’s head coach. Putting that into perspective, when Lane Kiffin was fired midseason on the tarmac at LAX, he was a far better 10-8 in his last 18 at USC.

Heck, even if Helton goes 1-2, he’d still be 8-10, quite a bit worse than Kiffin when he was fired.

Why would you make that move? Because Urban Meyer is already letting everyone know he’s ready to come back to coaching. From this linked article:

What Meyer misses most is waking to the battle.

“The morning is the hardest time of day,” he said. “You’re not in a fight.”

“I’ve been in a fight for 33 years, and now you’re not in that fight,” Meyer says. “So how do you fulfill that fight? And I feel that every morning. Every morning. 

“It’s all about a win and a loss for 33 years. I mean every day was. Not just you’re getting ready for a game. No, no, no, no. You’re recruiting every day. You’re going against Alabama and Clemson every day, The Team Up North every day. Now you’re not. That’s the number one void, is you’re not in a fight.”

I mean, it’s almost too easy to predict Meyer taking the USC job. It’s the exact same scenario that led him to Florida and Ohio State. It’s a down time for USC, the most storied program in the conference, while the overall conference is down as well.

The Pac 12 is ripe for domination.

Just like when he went to Ohio State Meyer takes a year off to work in TV, this time at Fox as opposed to ESPN, and decides he can’t handle not coaching. That he’s too competitive to stay on the sidelines.

Hell, he’s already in Los Angeles sitting next to two of the most famous Trojan football players of all time — Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. It’s the perfect spot for him to claim the Trojan throne.

What’s the draw to him?

Can you imagine if Meyer won four national titles in three different conferences?

That would be flat out incredible.

As if Meyer’s potential availability wasn’t enough, by the way, Bob Stoops, who will be coaching in the XFL next year, was on my radio show Friday and I asked him if he’d be interested in coming back to coach in college. This is what he told me:

“Well, we’ll see. I believe when I stepped away, if I wanted to continue to coach in college, I would’ve stayed at Oklahoma. I just felt I had run my course there, and, you know, just needed some time and space of my own. And I got that. Right now I’m excited about the adventure going into the XFL. Starting from scratch is really exciting as well. So we’ll see where it leads. I know everybody loves to…they want you to define your life from year to year, and everybody always wants forever and never. And I don’t know how you ever say that. You just never know what the good Lord’s going to bring.”

It sounds to me like Meyer and Stoops, two national title winning coaches, are there for the taking if the right job comes available.

5. Who has been the most disappointing team in college football so far this year?

We’ve got a three way race between Tennessee, Florida State, and UCLA. These three teams have combined to go 2-7 so far this year.

Now my audience might skew a bit towards Tennessee, which is why the Vols might be winning the poll by as much as they are, but I think it’s fair to say that none of the fans of these three programs are happy right now.

Of course, things can change with one win.

If Jeremy Pruitt went on the road and beat the Gators this week Vol fans would be so ecstatic they’d forgive the Georgia State and BYU losses in an instant. With one win, he could wipe away the bad taste.

And FSU and UCLA still have chances to bounce back as well.

Hell, it’s college football, you never know what your team will do from one week to the next, that’s what makes the games so much fun.

So let’s say things completely tanked at these three programs and they wanted to move on.

Would Meyer or Stoops have interest at any of these schools?

Maybe.

It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

6. Coaching stupidity infuriates me.

To that end, there was one decision that stood far above the rest when it came to coaching stupidity this weekend.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, trailing 17-10, faced a 4th and 1 from the Penn State one with just under five minutes to play.

If you go for it and fail Penn State takes possession at the one and you can use your timeouts to try and force the Nittany Lions, who would likely play it conservative, to run the ball and then punt from their own end zone. This means you’d only need to go half the length of the field or so for the resulting tie.

Of course if you get the touchdown — and remember offenses convert on 4th and 1 more often than not — then you are tied up with under five minutes to play.

The point here is pretty straightforward — you 100% have to go for the touchdown. (That’s made even more the case when Narduzzi had already made a far more risky decision to go for it on fourth down earlier in the drive).

Inexplicably Narduzzi elected to kick the field goal from the one.

His field goal, which is insanely difficult to kick from a hashmark that close to the goal posts, missed and Pitt went on to the lose the game.

Even if you make the field goal you still need a touchdown to win. So the scenario really doesn’t change anything.

It was such a stupid decision I was left wondering how in the world anyone can justify paying Narduzzi three million a year to do his job.

7. How about Les Miles getting the win for Kansas on the road?

It had been 11 years since Kansas last won a power five conference game on the road.

Eleven years!

And then they went on the road at Boston College as twenty point underdogs and won by 24 points, the biggest point swing based on the spread in college football in years.

Combining this with Mack Brown’s early success at North Carolina and Herm Edwards win at Michigan State, it was a great week for old dude coaches in college football.

8. I think Kentucky beats Florida if Feleipe Franks doesn’t get injured.

First, it’s been a brutal in the SEC East already this year, with South Carolina, Kentucky, and now Florida all losing their starting quarterbacks for the season. (To the credit of all three schools, the back ups have all performed admirably so far, suggesting there wasn’t much of a gap between first and second string).

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano took to Twitter to wish all three men well and, predictably, the first response I saw epitomized why so much of social media is complete trash.

Second, at the time of the Franks injury Kentucky led 21-10 and took over possession at their 38 with 3:21 left in the third quarter. The Wildcats drove to the Florida 38 as the quarter ended and faced a 4th and 1 to start the fourth quarter there.

Stoops elected to go for the first down and was completely stuffed on the play.

This isn’t Sunday morning quarterbacking, I would have punted Florida deep there and let their back up quarterback take over inside the ten yard line. (I may have been a bit biased because I had the under in this game, but I still think this is the smartest play given how well your defense had been playing already.) I think an 11 point lead at home in the fourth quarter, with your opponent’s back up quarterback staring at ninety yards of field is a pretty ideal spot to be.

But I also understand the aggressive decision to go for it there as well.

The result: instead of starting with the length of the field in front of him, Florida took possession and drove the field for a touchdown that made it a close game again. And my question would be this, if you’re going to coach aggressively, why play loose and let Trask pick you apart for the entire fourth quarter?

And if you’re going to play aggressively why are you kicking a 35 yard field goal with a freshman? It felt to me like Kentucky totally settled for this play.

Ultimately Kyle Trask would come in and go 9 for 13 for 126 yards in a single quarter of football to win the game for the Gators.

(I don’t even want to talk about that final touchdown, the one after the missed Kentucky field goal. There was absolutely, positively, no way the Gator tailback should have scored on that play. Take a knee, kid! The game’s over once you get the first down. All you did was manage to cost a lot of fantastic people a cover in our blood bank guarantee for the week!)

9. My Heisman Top Four:

1. Jalen Hurts

2. Tua

3. Justin Fields

4. Joe Burrow

How about this play, which was the wildest I saw all day?!

The quarterback landing here and reaching the ball out for the first down is one of the most insanely in control plays I’ve ever seen. If I took this hit, I wouldn’t know what decade it was, much less be reaching for the first down marker.

10. Outkick’s national top ten:

(Remember, I judge teams entirely based on how they have looked on the field this year against big five conference competition, not by what I expected to see in the preseason. This early in the season we can see big jumps from one week to the next).

1. LSU

2. Clemson

3. Alabama

4. Ohio State

5. Oklahoma

6. Georgia

7. Auburn

8. Notre Dame

9. UCF

10. Utah

11. SEC power rankings 1-14

1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Georgia

4. Auburn

5. Texas A&M

6. Florida

7. Missouri

8. Kentucky

9. Mississippi State

10. South Carolina

11. Ole Miss

12. Arkansas

13. Vanderbilt

14. Tennessee

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