College football takeaways: After Alabama struggles, could Nick Saban lose to an assistant?

Pete Thamel
·18 mins read

In Tuscaloosa on Saturday, this most bizarre of college football seasons will get a measure of normalcy. This year’s version of the annual Game of the Century will take place between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia, with some twists befitting of 2020’s ode to the bizarre.

The marquee regular-season game will take place under the lights in Tuscaloosa, a setting of so many high-end regular season games this century. But the storyline will be a pinch different, as Nick Saban faces his old defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, with a chance to go 22-0 against former assistant coaches.

This is the rare time during Saban’s regime at Alabama that he won’t be bringing the most vaunted defense into the matchup. Alabama gave up 647 yards to Ole Miss on Saturday, managing to outscore Lane Kiffin’s Rebels, 63-48.

On a Saturday where the SEC channeled the soul of the Big 12 — or maybe the old WAC — it was Saban and coordinator Pete Golding’s defense that enabled a shootout that made you glance for Kliff Kingsbury’s presence on the sideline. “We just didn’t play very well on defense,” Saban said. “Maybe a game like this will wake us up a little bit.”

Georgia’s elite defense will be on display, as it was on Saturday afternoon, against Alabama’s high-flying offense. Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s crew — expect to hear his name a lot this week — shut out Tennessee in the second half and forced three turnovers that led to 13 UGA points.

UGA doesn’t have a unit loaded with rare talents, as 6-foot-6, 330-pound defensive tackle Jordan Davis is the only sure-fire first-round pick in 2021 on UGA’s defense. (Defensive back Tyson Campbell is starting to flash that kind of ability, but he missed five games with a foot injury last year so he’s lagging a bit in the hype department.)

UGA’s defense is certainly talented and features plenty of future draft picks. But it’s not loaded with freaks like Clemson had on the defensive line two years ago. Nor does it have the preponderance of first-round personnel that some of Saban’s teams have had during his time in Tuscaloosa.

But Georgia has a wonderful team defense, which elicited this gem from an opposing coach earlier in the week.

“They don’t give up free-access throws, so you have to work for everything,” the coach said. “When they blitz you, they don’t ever truly blitz you. Like on base downs, they pop one dude. They are ultra aggressive without taking risks – they move a bunch in the front, twist guys and do single-backer blitzes. They never sell the house.

“All they have to do is win one time and you are second-and-14, that’s the style that they play. And they have really good players. So what stands out is that they are aggressive without taking risks. I know, that sounds like jumbo shrimp.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban signals a touchdown against the Ole Miss Rebels on Oct. 10, 2020. (Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama coach Nick Saban signals a touchdown against the Ole Miss Rebels on Oct. 10, 2020. (Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Georgia will be facing an offense that’s accumulated jumbo stats, as Alabama is averaging 51 points per game, which will keep them among the nation’s top-five offenses.

Georgia will enter the game with the SEC’s best-scoring defense (12.3) after the Bulldogs figured out a way to overwhelm Tennessee and its high-end offensive line in the second half on Saturday. “What stands out is the camaraderie they have about them, and they take pride in being good,” Smart told reporters after the game about his defense. “They don’t have a bunch of prima donnas.”

Every game of the century needs a marquee matchup. First-year Alabama starting quarterback Mac Jones has thrown eight touchdowns through three games and completed nearly 80% of his passes. He’s throwing to a pair of ridiculously talented receivers — DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle — and has perhaps the country’s best running back in Najee Harris.

Can Smart and Lanning figure out a way to slow them down? This Georgia team has been created in the mold of one of Saban’s old-school Alabama teams — defense first, with enough offense to get by. Saban used to swallow up inexperienced quarterbacks like Stetson Bennett, but there are questions about Alabama’s ability to cover after yielding 13.1 yards per attempt and 379 passing yards to Ole Miss.

It’s doubtful Georgia will be able to score 48 against Alabama like Ole Miss did, as the Bulldogs don’t play with near the tempo. And its defense won’t be such a sieve to give them so many possessions.

But Saban expressed some genuine concern with the current defense, as it has yet to establish any kind of distinct identity in Pete Golding’s second season as defensive coordinator.

“Obviously we’re going to have to play defense a lot better because they have a very good defensive team,” Saban said.

While this season’s Game of the Century brings back the familiar outsized hype, it will take on a different tone that we’ve become accustomed to. Alabama will enter with a mighty offense, inferior defense, and perhaps, with Saban vulnerable to lose to a former assistant for the first time.

Picture says 1,000 words about LSU football

If the pain of a program and its fan base can be encapsulated in a single image, Hilary Scheinuk of The Advocate managed to deliver it on Saturday. Scheinuk shot a searing image of LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini walking off the field after losing to Missouri that captured him with his palm pressed on his forehead, equal parts overwhelmed, helpless and exasperated.

In the wake of the defending national champions’ 45-41 loss, perhaps someone told Pelini that he’d soon have to get ready to stop Florida’s offense next week. The image went viral on Twitter and prompted visceral reactions.

LSU is off to a historically bad start, as it is 1-2 for the first time since 1994. The Tigers have given up more points through three games than any time in program history. And don’t pin this on LSU needing to play three SEC games to open the season, either. LSU has lost to a pair of pedestrian unranked SEC teams that will be lucky to elevate to the league’s middle class.

Understanding all of the losses on the coaching staff and roster, it’s still striking at just how far LSU has fallen.

It’s difficult to pick the worst part about Missouri torching them for 586 total yards. Was it that redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak did it in his second career start? Or was it that Missouri accumulated 406 receiving yards despite three of their top five wideouts — including two starters — missing the game for COVID-19-related reasons?

LSU quarterback Myles Brennan heads off the field as members of the Missouri Tigers celebrate an LSU turnover on downs in the final seconds of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri upset LSU 45-41. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
LSU quarterback Myles Brennan heads off the field as members of the Missouri Tigers celebrate an LSU turnover on downs in the final seconds of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri upset LSU 45-41. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

The school that goes to great lengths to identify as DBU is getting eaten alive by a collection of pedestrian passers and receivers. Elite LSU corner Derek Stingley looked dinged up on Saturday and didn’t appear to be his All-American self. But the rest of the secondary is average as grits, and Pelini — as the picture shows — doesn’t appear to have any answers. The only elite thing about this LSU defense is their knack to make the opposition look like world-beaters.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron made his name as a defensive line coach. But he’s spent little time running a defense, as his career has been hallmarked as more of a recruiter and motivator than an overall tactician. When you are a head coach without substantial X-and-O acumen that is suddenly confronted with both a gaping talent deficit and an established schematic disadvantage, it could be a long season.

Orgeron isn’t as bad of a head coach as many thought he was after the loss to Troy back in 2017. But these past few weeks have reminded us that he’s probably not in that elite class with Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney either, even after the dominating season in 2019 that led to LSU’s national title.

LSU looks out of answers and the questions are only going to get tougher. Joe Burrow, Dave Aranda and Joe Brady aren’t walking through that door. And the Tigers face a seven-game stretch to finish the season where they’ll be heavy underdogs in four games.

That means plenty more opportunity for painful freeze frames.

Texas falters again, putting pressure on Tom Herman

A dark cloud of gloom now lingers over Austin, where the Longhorns fell to 2-2 after a four-overtime loss to rival Oklahoma, 53-45. The Longhorns erased a two-touchdown lead in the waning minutes of regulation, only to fall in the fourth overtime on a Sam Ehlinger interception in the end zone.

No fault should be shifted to Ehlinger, though. He finished with four rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns and 287 passing yards. He led two late drives to tie the game and provided the resiliency and toughness that will be his career hallmarks.

The fault again shifts to Tom Herman and the Texas coaching staff, as this team is exactly what we thought it was. The Longhorns are penalty prone, special teams deficient and still tackle as if the opponent has been dipped in Vaseline. They are wildly entertaining, as all three Big 12 games have been among the most thrilling of this young season.

But Texas isn’t paying Herman to be entertaining, and now the Longhorns are tied with Oklahoma at 1-2 in the Big 12 and searching for hope for the rest of their season. “A lot of them are self-inflicted wounds,” Herman said after the game. “I’m disappointed. Again, it’s my job to make sure that they don’t happen.”

Texas finished with 11 penalties for 101 yards, the worst of which may have been an unnecessary roughness penalty by center Derek Kerstetter that cost Texas a chance to score a touchdown in the first half. Punter Ryan Bujcevski’s personal foul after making a tackle on OU’s Marvin Mims that set up an Oklahoma third-quarter touchdown wasn’t even the dumbest mistake he made all day. That was his inexplicable molasses execution of a punt in the first half that OU blocked and scored on five plays later. Texas’ special teams remain tortured, and the Longhorns’ discipline hurt them for extended stretches until the fourth quarter.

“Extremely proud of the fight and resiliency, but we know we’ve got a long way to go and a lot to clean up,” Herman said. “We’ve also got a lot of our season ahead of us.”

After three Big 12 games that exhibited familiar mistakes and shortcomings, the surprise would be if Texas manages to look distinctly different.

Texas head coach Tom Herman gives instructions to Texas tight end Malcolm Epps (19) during overtime of an NCAA college football game in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Oklahoma defeated Texas 53-45 in overtime.(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Texas head coach Tom Herman gives instructions to Texas tight end Malcolm Epps (19) during overtime of an NCAA college football game in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Oklahoma defeated Texas 53-45 in overtime.(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Clemson still owns the ACC ... clearly

The notion of Clemson having a worthy ACC foil was fun to ponder for a week.

With No. 7 Miami storming into Death Valley, the idea of No. 1 Clemson being tested in league play — something that’s been rare as it has rattled off five straight ACC championships — was pondered deeply this week.

Then Miami arrived at Clemson on Saturday night, and the Hurricanes quickly found out they’ve yet to arrive. Miami’s new tempo offense ground into place, as it gained just 210 total yards, scored a lone offensive touchdown and was wire-to-wire outclassed by Clemson, 42-17.

Credit Clemson’s defensive line for winning the point of attack and negating Miami’s ability to establish tempo, as the Hurricanes finished with just nine total first downs.

And credit Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott for finding creative ways to get to the ball to Travis Etienne, who finished with 149 rushing yards and 79 receiving yards. Odell Beckham took notice, calling him “really different” and a “smooth criminal” on Twitter.

Trevor Lawrence proved his same unflappable self, as he shook off a hard hit that forced him to miss a play and threw for 292 yards and three touchdowns. He’s now gone 12 straight games without throwing an interception.

What did we learn from Dabo Swinney's program on Saturday? Well, their special teams need a jolt after getting three field goals blocked. And Clemson ran enough stretch plays and misdirection to show that it isn’t going to be able to bulldoze a high-end defensive line with its offensive line.

Luckily, there’s plenty of time for tune-ups. Clemson hits the soft portion of the ACC schedule the next three weeks — at Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Boston College — before a showdown with Notre Dame on Nov. 7 in South Bend. The Irish are 3-0 after dispatching Florida State on Saturday, 42-26, in what was likely the least-anticipated game in that series’ history.

With No. 5 Notre Dame an honorary ACC member this season, perhaps the Tigers finally find a worthy conference foil in Notre Dame. It wasn’t Miami, which has come a long way but showed it still has a ways to go.

Jimbo Fisher finally scores big-time win at Texas A&M

It’d been so long since Jimbo Fisher won a big game that it was jarring to hear that once-familiar uptempo verbal delivery in his postgame interview after upsetting No. 4 Florida on Saturday, 41-38. After two largely irrelevant seasons in College Station, Fisher has managed to finally author a signature victory. It was Texas A&M’s first win against a top-five opponent in Fisher’s tenure.

The portrait of Fisher celebrating on the sideline, fist-pumping his way down the field and speeding through his syllables — no one talks faster than Jimbo — showed the catharsis that the victory provided.

In Year 3 of his fully guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract, Fisher hadn’t provided much pop for Texas A&M’s dollars. But this victory provides both an adrenaline shot for the program and a boost to the career of senior quarterback Kellen Mond, whose development had appeared to flatline after some moments of early promises.

But Mond went 25-for-35 for 338 yards and three touchdowns. He led A&M on a 40-yard drive in the game’s final 3:40 after a fumble by Florida’s Malik Davis squandered UF’s chance to win and set up the Aggies. Seth Small drilled a 26-yard field goal as time expired to deliver the win. (Isaiah Spiller rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns and was the day’s biggest star.)

Fisher was clearly elated after the game. “They didn’t pay attention to the scoreboard,” he said. “They played the next play.

“Football is a game of will and you can’t let them break it.”

A&M (2-1) trailed 28-17 midway through the third quarter and fought back. They should be favored in their next three games — at Mississippi State, Arkansas and at South Carolina. “It shows you what you're capable of,” Fisher said. “Now what you follow up with tells you what you're capable of.”

Tennessee stumbles to the finish line

No. 3 Georgia ended up blowing out Tennessee, 44-21, but the tenor of a majority of the game didn’t match the final score.

The tortured Vols fans yearning for relevancy and competitiveness in the SEC East will look back at the third quarter of this game for where things went wrong. Tennessee led 21-17 at halftime and fell apart in a third quarter riddled with questionable play-calling and turnovers. The spiral led to the Vols getting shut out in the second half.

The drives where Tennessee got the ball in the third quarter unfolded this way — fumble, interception, punt, punt and punt. Along the way, Tennessee lost its identity, as the offensive line that was supposed to be the program’s fulcrum crumbled against Georgia’s elite defense.

In a hail of false starts, falling behind the chains and getting swallowed by the Georgia pass rush, the Vols’ offense disappeared in the Athens night. Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is no longer the Georgia OC, in part, for lapses like this when he’d abandon the run game, lose identity and lose control of games.

Credit Georgia with the pressure, scheme and talent to suffocate Tennessee. But after holding its own and appearing to match up in the first half, Tennessee failed to replicate what got it there.

Tennessee finished the day 4-of-17 on third down, with 10 penalties and -1 total rushing yard on 27 attempts. Some of that can be attributed to Georgia’s five sacks for 46 yards. Tennessee also yielded 13 points from turnovers.

Tennessee competed for a half, but also showed it is still a long way from the SEC’s elite.

Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (2) is brought down by Georgia defensive lineman Julian Rochester (92) after a short run in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (2) is brought down by Georgia defensive lineman Julian Rochester (92) after a short run in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Pitt’s kick in the gut

The day’s most distinct dichotomy of emotion went to the Pitt kicker Alex Kessman.

He produced the day’s kicking highlight, bombing a 58-yard field goal with 40 seconds left to send Pitt’s game at Boston College into overtime tied at 24.

At the end of the first overtime, Pitt’s Taysir Mack scored on a three-yard pass play that would have tied the game. Kessman, however, followed up his heroics by pushing the extra point and missing it wide right. “It’s disappointing, but that’s stuff that happens,” Narduzzi said. “He got us there.”

The mistake sent the Boston College sideline storming onto the field, as the 31-30 victory put the Eagles at 3-1 in Jeff Hafley’s first season. Boston College had a chance to send its game against North Carolina to overtime last week but failed on the two-point conversion in the final minute.

BC has found an identity, with Notre Dame transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec throwing for 358 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Zay Flowers continued his breakout year, catching six passes for 162 yards and all three of the touchdown passes. It’s the third straight game for BC that came down to the final minute.

“Our mentality is that it’s about the process, it’s about us,” Hafley said. “We’re going to go attack and play as hard as we can and stick together. It proves everything about this team right now, and I appreciate it.”

Hogs seething after controversial call

The hiring of Sam Pittman at Arkansas was roundly mocked in SEC circles. He’d been a career assistant coach who’d generated little interest in jobs and only came to Fayetteville after an awkward and flailing search.

But a three-game sample size shows that Pittman has delivered an adrenaline jolt to a program that had flatlined. Arkansas lost 30-28 at Auburn on Saturday and it was one bad officiating call away from pulling the shocking upset. “The times of us going someplace and embarrassing our fans are over,” Pittman said. “I'm proud of them. That's what I told them."

Arkansas had plenty of embarrassing of moments the past few years, as the end of Bret Bielema’s regime and the entire tenure of Chad Morris were unmitigated messes. Arkansas snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak last week against Mississippi State and nearly upset No. 13 Auburn on Saturday.

The officials gifted the win to Auburn when quarterback Bo Nix fumbled a third-down snap with 31 seconds left, turned around and spiked the ball backward to stop the clock. That should have been ruled a fumble, and Arkansas appeared to recover it after it was blown dead. Pittman was fuming on the sideline and was miffed after the game.

“The ball went backwards six yards,” he said. “I saw a fumble and a spike that went backwards six yards.”

There are no moral victories in the SEC, but considering that Arkansas lost to Auburn by an average of 39.2 points per game the last four years, there’s been progress in Fayetteville.

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