We’re trained to root for the hero in stories because we all want to believe we’re the good guy, too. But if we’re being honest, the villains make a story fun. Superman has the powers, but Lex Luthor has the personality.
And so it is with Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin, the stoic hero (Saban) pitted against his former protégé turned diabolical usurper (Kiffin). Marvel has nothing on this story.
In a year in which movie theaters went dark, Alabama and Ole Miss gave us our blockbuster. The Tide won 63-48 on Saturday, and the two teams piled up an SEC record for yardage. A nation on the edge of its seat wondered if Kiffin had somehow accumulated a fistful of infinity stones this offseason.
There were other stories Saturday, of course, with their own heroes and villains. At Clemson, a ferocious defense reminded Miami that being back on top also requires having at least one receiver who can get open. Miami’s Keontra Smith also delivered a nasty hit on Trevor Lawrence that resulted in a targeting flag and forced the Clemson QB to the sideline. Limited attendance made it easy to hear what the socially distanced Clemson fans thought of the play, too. Lawrence returned and teamed with Travis Etienne to lay waste to yet another would-be ACC contender in a 42-17 win.
Travis Etienne and Clemson dominated Miami and proved the Tigers are still the team to beat in the ACC. Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson’s win — as messy as it was at times — including Dabo Swinney’s unfortunate decision to try to kick a 61-yard field goal at the end of the first half — offered a sense of normalcy on a day that had plenty of other drama.
In LSU’s loss at Missouri, Bo Pelini’s defense imploded again, with Ed Orgeron furious about a performance so embarrassing that Nebraska called to ask if it could fire Pelini again. In College Station, Jimbo Fisher finally got his signature win, $75 million well spent. At Georgia, there was Stetson Bennett — definitely the name of a superhero alter ego — leading the Bulldogs to another big win over Tennessee and assuming firm command of the SEC East. Mike Leach’s Air Raid amounted to two points, and he said after the game that some players might need to walk the plank.
But those were all sideshows.
In Oxford, Mississippi, we watched the best kind of drama.
Aside from Saban and Kiffin, there were plenty of other plot points worth following. Mac Jones continued to prove he is a worthy successor to Tua Tagovailoa. The Alabama defense showed signs that it is a long way from its glory days. Ole Miss looked, again, like a team that’s going to hit the over in Las Vegas on a weekly basis. But the backdrop for it all was an X’s-and-O’s battle — and maybe a little subterfuge, too — between two coaches with a shared history and a completely divergent approach to the job.
Earlier this week, Kiffin compared his relationship with his former boss as “like a divorce.”
In that sense, this was a revenge story. Saban, after all, rescued Kiffin from the scrap heap. When USC left Kiffin on an airport tarmac, Saban invited him onboard Alabama’s rocket ship instead, a pairing that was destined to end badly but guaranteed plenty of interesting twists and turns along the way. Kiffin left under less-than-ideal circumstances, pushed aside in a mid-playoff run after he took the head-coaching job at Florida Atlantic, and he has taken great joy in needling Saban ever since. It’s like Kylo Ren turning against Luke Skywalker, but on Twitter.
Kiffin is the perfect foil to Saban, an outspoken, unabashed, unrepentant gadfly. So when Ole Miss responded with a touchdown after seemingly every Alabama score, it was impossible not to start rooting for the bad guy just a little. After all, who didn’t want to see Kiffin crack jokes in the postgame news conference while Saban silently seethed? Just imagine what would go through Saban’s head when he picked up his phone Sunday morning to find 20 increasingly misspelled text messages from Kiffin that just read “Scoreboard.”
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Of course Alabama won. The hero is supposed to win, and like it or not, Saban remains the hero of this story. Let’s just hope we get a few sequels, too.
Tough times in Texas
In a Red River Showdown game for the ages, Oklahoma delivers the final punch and knocks off Texas in four overtimes 53-45.
It is entirely possible neither team is very good this season, but you have to hand it to Texas and Oklahoma — they’re never boring.
Or, at least every two years they aren’t.
The Sooners closed out a 53-45, 4-OT win in the Red River … what are they calling it now? Rivalry? Showdown? Fracas? Let’s go with “fracas.” It was the most points scored in the rivalry game’s history, topping the record that was set in 2018, which topped the previous record set in 2016. So, look out for the 2022 version.
Will Tom Herman still be on the sideline for Texas in that one? It is getting to be an interesting question given the Longhorns’ 2-2 start.
QB Sam Ehlinger offered postgame frustration for the second straight week, lamenting the self-inflicted wounds that have kept Texas from winning. But really, it has been a bit of luck that the Longhorns have even been close. Texas trailed by 14 with four minutes to play before rallying to tie — the second time in three games it has done that.
Credit to Ehlinger, who has posted 10 touchdowns and 684 yards in the past two games — both losses.
Although Herman has two big bowl wins to his credit — vs. Utah last year and Georgia in 2018 — the rest of the résumé is looking awfully thin. In the past calendar year, Texas is just 6-5, including a two-point win vs. Kansas, a three-point win over Kansas State and its miraculous comeback last month against Texas Tech. Herman is just 9-10 in his past 19 regular-season games and has lost four of five vs. the Sooners.
It just means more … offense
Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond battled back and forth all afternoon, but it was Texas A&M kicker Seth Small who won the day with a game-winning 26-yard field goal as time expired.
Jimbo Fisher finally got his signature win at Texas A&M, pulling the upset over No. 4 Florida 41-38.
Meanwhile, the defending champion LSU Tigers are now under .500 after falling to Missouri 45-41.
And if you’re a bit surprised by those scores, there is good reason.
Florida’s defense has now given up 100 points through three games, its worst three-game stretch since 1917, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
LSU has given up 96 points through three games as Bo Pelini has taken over the defense, its most to start a season in program history.
Missouri QB Connor Bazelak throws for 406 yards and four touchdowns while Myles Brennan passes for 430 yards and four TDs in LSU’s 45-41 loss.
When it was over, Ed Orgeron called the Tigers’ D “embarrassing,” which is a word he usually reserves for people who tap out after three refills of all-you-can-eat crawfish. Where do the answers come from for LSU? It’s hard to imagine a quick fix. Missouri hadn’t scored more than 24 in a game in a year.
Meanwhile, Dan Mullen chalked up his team’s loss to the crowd at Kyle Field. Mullen added that he wants a packed house at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium next week for the Gators’ game against LSU, assuming — we guess — that most of those fans can also come in and play defense.
Thankfully, Tennessee was here to restore order, reminding the world in the second half of its loss to Georgia that not every SEC game ends in an offensive shootout.
When playing a contact sport such as football, it’s incredibly important to stay hydrated. We’ll assume that’s what George Pickens was thinking when he used his water bottle to squirt Jarrett Guarantano as the Tennessee QB went out of bounds on a play along the UGA sideline.
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano falls out of bounds after scrambling, while on the ground Georgia’s George Pickens squirts water on him.
Rather than applauding Pickens’ helpfulness, officials flagged him for an unsportsmanlike penalty, and even head coach Kirby Smart suggested that perhaps the motivation might have been a bit more childish.
“When somebody comes out of bounds and you squirt water at them, what are we? Are we 7 and 8 years old?” Smart said. “I mean, come on, let’s play football. Let’s (not) be silly.”
And with this, it’s unlikely that next week we will see Richard LeCounte ensure Mac Jones’ uniform is secure by giving him a wedgie.
Something in the water?
UNC quarterback Sam Howell throws three touchdown passes, and the Tar Heels top the Hokies 56-45.
It’s a famously short 21-mile jaunt from the campus at North Carolina to Duke. Their respective backfields seemed intent on covering that much ground on Saturday alone.
The Tar Heels ran for 399 yards and five touchdowns in a wild win over No. 19 Virginia Tech, with Michael Carter and Javonte Williams each topping 160 yards. Carter had two scores on 17 carries, rushing for 214, including a 64-yard scamper. Williams finished with 169 and two touchdowns, too.
Meanwhile, Duke leaned on its tailback tandem to pick up win No. 1 of the season at Syracuse. Deon Jackson ran for 169 yards, and Mataeo Durant added 161 and two touchdowns. Overall, Duke finished with 363 yards rushing — just 31 fewer than the combined total of its first four games.
How rare was that? It was the first time Duke has ever had multiple players rush for 160 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. North Carolina hadn’t had it happen since 1931.
For the Blue Devils, it was a much-needed reprieve amid a dismal start to the 2020 season. For the Heels, it was a huge step up in credibility.
North Carolina’s 56 points were its most ever against an AP-ranked opponent, and the Heels are now 3-0 for the first time since 2011.
It all had head coach Mack Brown thinking about real estate.
“We need to buy a house in this neighborhood,” Brown said of UNC’s ascendance into the realm of playoff contender. “We’ve been visiting the first couple weeks in the top 10. It’s who we want to be, but have we earned it yet? Playing a top-20 team in Virginia Tech that was dominating their first two games when we weren’t gave us a chance to prove we could be good.”
Overreaction of the week
Did we all overrate BYU a bit after its early dominance? It looked that way as the Cougars struggled to get past UTSA in a game they were favored to win by 35. Instead, BYU had to hold off a late rally to escape 27-20. So, problems for the Cougs?
BYU clearly didn’t play its best game, but with 470 yards of offense and another impressive performance from QB Zach Wilson (22-of-30 for 292 and two touchdowns) there’s not much need to worry. Instead, it is probably a credit to a UTSA team that is far better than it was in past years. At 3-2, the Roadrunners are within a win of last year’s season total already, and both losses are by a combined 15 points.
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Under-reaction of the week
Sure, it’d be easy enough to shrug off South Carolina’s dominant win over Vanderbilt with the obvious refrain: It was only Vandy. But that would undervalue just how anemic the Gamecocks’ offense has been for the past — well, pretty much the entire Will Muschamp era.
South Carolina hung 41 on Vandy on Saturday, marking the first time the Gamecocks have hit 40 in an SEC game since November 2018 against Ole Miss, and just the third time since Muschamp took over the program in 2016.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Life comes at you fast. No one knows that better than Pittsburgh kicker Alex Kessman. With Pitt trailing Boston College by three with 40 seconds to play, Kessman booted a 58-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Free Primanti Brothers for life! But, much like eating a sandwich in which french fries are a condiment, the enjoyment didn’t last long. After BC scored on the first possession of OT, Pitt responded with a touchdown of its own — only Kessman botched the extra point attempt, sending the Panthers to a second straight one-point loss.
Under-the-radar play of the week
Perhaps the worst part of this abridged college football season so far is the lack of big-man TDs. So it is with great pleasure that we applaud 320-pound Alim McNeill, who pulled off one of the most athletic big-man scores you’ll ever see. The NC State defensive tackle batted a pass in the air, fielded it like a pop fly, then rumbled 18 yards for a touchdown. And he didn’t stop when he got to the end zone, springing along the back line in celebration. Who says linemen hate doing extra cardio?
NC State defensive lineman Alim McNeill tips the interception to himself and is able to return it for a touchdown.
Remember last month, when the Big 12 opened its season with some embarrassing out-of-conference losses? Kansas State fell to Arkansas State, and Iowa State got thumped by Louisiana, and we all had a good laugh about Bob Bowlsby’s decision to play nonconference games at all. Those were the days.
Yeah, funny thing about that. Kansas State beat TCU on Saturday, and Iowa State stomped Texas Tech, and both are now 3-0 in Big 12 play and atop the league’s standings.
Does this mean the Sun Belt champ gets the Big 12’s New Year’s Six bids? It would only be fair.
Some of the top contenders took a loss this week, and we’re still another two weeks from adding the Big Ten’s stars to the mix. That puts our top two well ahead of the rest of the pack.
Trevor Lawrence throws for 292 yards and three touchdowns and Travis Etienne rushes for 149 yards and two touchdowns as Clemson goes on to defeat Miami 42-17.
1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Another game, another four touchdowns for Lawrence, who had to share the spotlight with a game-changing tailback and a dominant defense but still remains atop our Heisman rankings.
2. Alabama QB Mac Jones
Jones’ first three games of the season: 79.5% completions, 1,101 passing yards, eight TDs. Compare that to Tua Tagovailoa’s first three of 2019: 76.9% completions, 1,007 passing yards and 12 TDs.
3. Florida QB Kyle Trask
It’s hard to blame the QB for the loss Saturday. Trask was exceptional again, and he now has 14 TD passes, including four in three straight games. The only SEC QBs to do it in four straight in the past decade are Tagovailoa and Johnny Manziel.
4. BYU QB Zach Wilson
He was 22-of-30 for 292 yards and two touchdowns against UTSA, and that was considered a bad game. Wilson is the real deal, and he is just starting to get the national attention he deserves.
5. Clemson RB Travis Etienne
There is not a more dynamic running back in college football than Etienne, who had 149 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to go with eight catches for 73 yards through the air.
Big bets and bad beats
Down 10 with five minutes left in its game against NC State, Virginia went for it on fourth-and-10 at its own 23 — and went nowhere. That handed the ball over to the Wolfpack, intent on running out the clock. Four straight runs followed, but before Zonovan Knight could reach the end of the game, he reached the end zone, scoring on a 2-yard run with 1:49 to play. That put the score at 38-21 — cashing the over by half a point.
Bettors might want to dress up as Brock Purdy for Halloween, because he makes the month of October awfully fun for Iowa State backers. With Purdy helming the offense, the Cyclones are 8-1 against the spread in October, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, including covering a 10-point spread in a 31-15 win over Texas Tech on Saturday. How much does Purdy love all the Halloween hijinks of October? His completion percentage in October is … 66.6%. Spooky.
For reasons even Dabo Swinney probably can’t quite explain, Clemson decided to wrap a first half of what was shaping up as a blowout of Miami with a 61-yard field goal attempt. It didn’t go well. Sporting a 21-3 lead, with the Hurricanes’ offense unable to do anything against the Tigers’ stout D, Swinney wanted to run it up just a tick more with a long kick as the clock expired. Instead, the kick was blocked, and Miami’s DJ Ivey picked it up and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown. It was an embarrassing moment for Swinney and the Tigers, but it was a gift for anyone who bet the over for the half, which was set at 30 points. The touchdown brought the combined score to 31.
Alabama needed every score it could get to keep pace with Ole Miss on Saturday, but the final touchdown was a bit of a nail in the coffin. With 1:09 to play and the game in hand, Najee Harris broke off a 39-yard run for a touchdown, bringing the final score to 63-48 and ensuring the Tide covered the second-half spread of minus-10. Or perhaps Nick Saban just wanted to add a little salt — or rat poison — to Lane Kiffin’s wounds.
The waiting game
We’re used to touting the ball-control ability of Navy’s option offense, but the final drive to close out a win against Temple on Saturday was something far more astonishing than we thought possible. Credit Navy’s sports information director Scott Strasemeier for the info.
Navy’s final offensive drive that set up the Nichols field goal is statistically incredible: Took 9:06 off the clock, ran 15 plays, and gained 26 yards.
— Scott Strasemeier (@ScottStras) October 11, 2020
It might seem impossible to take more than nine minutes off the clock and gain only 26 yards, but Navy’s formula was foolproof. No play gained more than 6 yards. The Midshipmen converted a fourth down. Every play was a run. They even used two timeouts for good measure.