More Overtime (cont.)
One of the weekend's most stunning developments went largely unnoticed Saturday night. For the first time since Oct. 22, 2011, top-ranked Alabama fell behind an opponent in regulation, as Ole Miss took a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter of the teams' game in Tuscaloosa. The deficit lasted 15 seconds, just enough time for Christion Jones to return the ensuing kickoff 99 yards en route to a 33-14 Crimson Tide victory.
Around the same time, No. 3 LSU -- the last team to beat Alabama and its expected primary challenger again this season -- was slogging its way through an ugly 38-22 win over FCS foe Towson. The Tigers committed 10 penalties, lost three fumbles and looked generally unimpressive for a second straight week. "I can tell you that it was a somber locker room," LSU coach Les Miles said after the game. "... Am I alarmed? Yes, absolutely. It is time that we recognize that we cannot go on the path that we are on."
This much we know as the calendar turns to October: The SEC will almost certainly place a representative in the BCS National Championship for a seventh straight season, and Alabama is currently the favorite to earn that spot. It's a lot less clear, however, whether 'Bama's biggest challenge will still come Nov. 3 in Baton Rouge. It may instead come a month later, when the Tide, the West's likely representative in the SEC Championship Game, could take on one of three current top 10 teams from the East.
Thanks to a treat from the scheduling gods, we may find out which team is 'Bama's biggest threat next week. The 5-0 Tigers visit No. 10 Florida (4-0), while No. 5 Georgia (5-0) and No. 6 South Carolina (4-0) square off in Columbia.
While Florida had a bye Saturday, the Dawgs won a 51-44 shootout against Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks fell behind lowly Kentucky, 17-7, before scoring the game's final 31 points. There are reasons to think that either or both teams could stand up to the vaunted Tide, but only one will ultimately get that chance.
CBS viewers got a taste Saturday of just how explosive Georgia's offense has become thanks to the emergence of the freshman tailback tandem of Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, aka "Gurshall" (you know, like Herschel). The pair combined for 294 yards and five touchdowns against the Vols, including two 70-plus-yard dashes by Marshall. Their presence alongside strong-armed quarterback Aaron Murray and his talented receiving corps gives Georgia more offensive weapons than even the 2008 Matthew Stafford-Knowshon Moreno-A.J. Green squad.
"We're amazingly balanced," receiver Michael Bennett (five catches, 70 yards, two touchdowns) said. "We have two 100-yard rushers and Aaron throwing for 250 every game. It's amazing."
Of course, one might look at the other side of the ledger and note that Georgia's purportedly stout defense allowed 44 points and 478 yards. That output was particularly notable given the return and immediate impact of suspended starters Bacarri Rambo (14 tackles) and Alec Ogletree (nine).
But defensive coordinator Todd Grantham seemed unconcerned, in fact insinuating the returning players' rust may have played a factor. "The newness of the positions some guys were playing after four games off hurt us," he said. "Moving forward we should become a little more consistent." Ultimately, the Dawgs' defense clinched the victory by forcing three Tyler Bray turnovers on Tennessee's last three possessions.
That defense will be tested again Saturday by suddenly torrid South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, who has completed 89.7 percent of his passes (35-of-39) over the past two weeks. Marcus Lattimore took the latest step in his ACL recovery by rushing for a season-high 120 yards on 23 carries against Kentucky, and most importantly, the Gamecocks shook off a horrendous first half with ease.
"Our guys really had a good look in their eyes [at halftime], nobody was pouting," Steve Spurrier said. "Maybe we learned something about ourselves as we go forward."
What we've learned about No. 4 LSU is that its defense remains as salty as ever (the Tigers are allowing 3.6 yards per play, fourth nationally), but its offense remains in question. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has taken the brunt of the blame, but the bigger issue is an offensive line that's still reeling from the loss of All-America tackle Chris Faulk to a season-ending knee injury.
But even Miles acknowledged the unit's struggles. "...We played down to our opponent," Miles said after the Towson game. Remember, this is the same team that dismantled Washington (which upset No. 8 Stanford last week), 41-3, in Week 2. "I can tell you that we are looking forward to turning our attention to Florida," he said.
Thus far Will Muschamp's Gators have been the biggest surprise of the bunch. They're already 3-0 in SEC play, with wins at Texas A&M (20-17) and Tennessee (37-20) and a 38-0 home rout of Kentucky. Florida's maturing defense shut out all three foes in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel has yet to face a defense near the level of LSU's, and Florida will need running back Mike Gillislee (105 yards per game) and all-purpose threat Trey Burton (who missed the Kentucky game with back spasms) to keep the Tigers off balance. Still, it's a sign of both teams' seasons to date that this game is now considered a serious challenge for LSU.
It will still only be the first Saturday in October, but Week 6 feels like a potential turning point in the national championship race. Of course, in the SEC, we may be saying much the same thing the very next weekend.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:
Title game: Alabama vs. Oregon
Rose: USC vs. Nebraska
Fiesta: Kansas State vs. Notre Dame
Sugar: Georgia vs. Texas
Orange: Florida State vs. Louisville
The Huskers took an important step in the race to finish as the Big Ten's second-best team -- and head to Pasadena by default -- by rallying from an early 20-3 deficit Saturday to beat Wisconsin, 30-27. In all seriousness, it was a highly encouraging night for Nebraska's offense once it finished coughing up early fumbles. Taylor Martinez finished 17-of-29 for 181 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 107 more yards and a score, and explosive sophomore Ameer Abdullah had an 83-yard kick return and 230 all-purpose yards.
Suddenly, the Huskers' trip to 5-0 Ohio State this week takes on added importance. The Buckeyes' defense could not have been more impressive in limiting Michigan State star Le'Veon Bell to 45 yards on 17 carries in Saturday's 17-16 win in East Lansing, but it'll face a more balanced offense against Nebraska. But Ohio State will also face a shaky defense that Braxton Miller may well exploit for 350 yards.
If the Huskers win, they'll look more and more like the Big Ten favorite. If Ohio State emerges, expect the buzz surrounding the possibility of Urban Meyer going undefeated in his first season in Columbus (but without a bowl) to shoot through the roof.