Alabama sent a message to the rest of the SEC Saturday night by treating Georgia’s then-second-ranked defense like a sparring partner. Clemson has basically laughed at its four ACC opponents, defeating them by an average of 32.2 points per game.
The two traditional powers already look like locks for the College Football Playoff — and they may not even be the best team in the country. It sure isn’t a two-horse race between these two despite their dominance through the season’s first six weeks.
Ohio State, the most talented team in the country on paper, has yet to step on the field. That changes Saturday when Nebraska comes to Columbus, possibly punishment from the Big Ten schedule-makers for publicly criticizing the league’s initial decision to cancel the fall season.
Yes, the Buckeyes haven’t played a game yet. So there is some mystery to what they will be. Meanwhile, Alabama and its seemingly unstoppable offense looks like it is two touchdowns better than the rest of the SEC. Clemson and Heisman Trophy front-runner Trevor Lawrence might be three scores better than anyone else in the ACC, and that includes one-year conference member Notre Dame.
But don’t forget how much Ohio State returns, that projected first-round picks Shaun Wade and Austin Wyatt opted into the season after initially declaring for the NFL draft. Don’t forget the Buckeyes likely beat Clemson in the College Football Playoff if Justin Fields isn’t playing on one healthy ankle and a questionable targeting call doesn’t lead to Wade’s ejection. Don’t forget how capable Ryan Day looked in his first year as a head coach, and how much room there should be for him to grow after his offense averaged 46.9 points and 529.9 yards per game.
Ohio State was my pick to start the season at No. 1. After a few weeks, I moved the Buckeyes down because they had yet to play a game.
But it would be premature to anoint Clemson and Alabama at this point. Alabama’s defense looks pedestrian, allowing 28.8 points per game. Clemson’s offense lost top receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, and four starting offensive linemen. The Buckeyes do have holes to fill, losing defensive stars Jeff Okudah and Chase Young, and starting running back J.K. Dobbins.
But Wade (cornerback) and Davis (offensive guard) coming back was huge — they are Associated Press preseason first-team All-Americans — and receiver Chris Olave has star potential on the outside. Zach Harrison may follow in a long line of elite defensive linemen at Ohio State. Fields was sensational in his first full year as the starter, producing 51 touchdowns, and there is no reason to believe he will take a step back.
This team is loaded. It is deeper, more experienced and more talented across the board than Alabama and Clemson. Starting Saturday, the other national title favorite gets its chance to prove it.
Quick! Look over there!
The SEC should gladly welcome the Big Ten and Pac-12’s return if it means less attention on its mediocre teams. Because right now, after Alabama, the powerhouse conference has a lot of issues. Defenses have been abysmal. There is no clear No. 2 after the Crimson Tide. Unless Georgia can win out, and that includes an unlikely victory over Alabama in the SEC Championship game, it’s hard to envision the league sending a second team to the playoff. On Saturday, heavy favorites Tennessee and Auburn lost. LSU and Florida don’t look like serious contenders due to porous defenses. Everyone but Nick Saban’s team already has at least one defeat, and only three others — Florida, Texas A&M and Georgia — have one loss.
Don’t do it. Do not hype up Clemson-Notre Dame on Nov. 7 in South Bend. It doesn’t matter that the Irish are ranked third in the nation or that they are undefeated. Trust your eyes. This isn’t a title contender. This isn’t a team capable of playing with the Tigers. It barely beat one-win Louisville at home after struggling with Florida State. Notre Dame will likely enter the showdown undefeated — its next two opponents are Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech — but that shouldn’t matter. Do not believe in Notre Dame. It has done nothing to suggest it belongs among the nation’s elite, let alone No. 1 Clemson.
1. Clemson (5-0) (Last week: 1)
The Tigers can spot anyone in the ACC three touchdowns and they would still win. The gulf is that wide between Clemson and the rest of the conference.
2. Alabama (4-0) (2)
As Jerry Jeudy tweeted, Alabama is becoming Wide Receiver U. After producing two first-round picks last year — Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III — the Crimson Tide have the best trio in the country this season in Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III.
3. Ohio State (0-0) (3)
It’s game week in Columbus and with it, come sky-high expectations. Anything less than a title is a disappointment.
4. Georgia (2-1) (4)
The Bulldogs defense doesn’t get a pass for allowing 564 yards and 41 points, but at some point Kirby Smart has to take a look at USC transfer J.T. Daniels. Quarterback Stetson Bennett, the former walk-on, has a limited ceiling, as his performance against Alabama showed.
5. Penn State (0-0) (5)
The Nittany Lions offense has the potential to be elite. Not only does quarterback Sean Clifford return, but he has his top four running backs, tight end Pat Freiermuth and receiver Jahan Dotson.
6. Notre Dame (3-0) (6)
Forget the Clemson game on Nov. 7. Notre Dame will have to be much better just to beat 3-3 Pittsburgh on Saturday than it was in narrowly escaping one-win Louisville.
7. Florida (2-1) (7)
This is the real challenge of this bizarre season. After a frustrating loss, Florida will have three full weeks to agonize over it while hoping to avoid rust, due to consecutive weeks of COVID-19 postponements.
8. Cincinnati (3-0) (9)
Odds are long that the AAC can get into the playoff. But the Cincinnati-SMU winner Saturday will at least be part of the conversation.
9. Oklahoma State (3-0) (10)
One of the nation’s best running backs (Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard) against one of the better run defenses (Iowa State) will be one of the top storylines in Saturday’s showdown in Stillwater.
10. Texas A&M (3-1) (NR)
The on-the-rise Aggies are as good as anyone in the non-Alabama segment of the SEC, backing up their big win over Florida with a commanding road victory at Mississippi State.
Dropped out: North Carolina (3-1)
Heisman Watch (in alphabetical order)
RB Travis Etienne, Clemson
He probably won’t win the award — his teammate, Trevor Lawrence, is the heavy favorite — but there’s no doubt Etienne is one of the premier players in the country, nearly as valuable as a receiver out of the backfield as he is a runner.
QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
It’s finally go-time for Fields. He doesn’t have much time to impress, just eight games to leave an impression on the voters. Look for Ohio State to run it up often.
QB Mac Jones, Alabama
An afterthought in early September, Jones is looking like a legit contender, with four straight 400-yard passing games and a through-the-roof 78.3 completion percentage.
QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Lawrence finally threw an interception, snapping a streak of 366 passes without a pick, but he more than made up for it with a career-best 404 yards through the air and five touchdown passes.
QB Kyle Trask, Florida
Though no known fault of his own, Trask’s Heisman hopes took a hit with Florida’s back-to-back COVID-19 postponements. Three weeks without a game makes tougher the already challenging spot Trask is in to win the sport’s most prestigious honor.
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