Here’s the most underrated conundrum in college football this year: Who is the fourth-best team in the Southeastern Conference?
Identifying the top three is easy enough as the regular season reaches its midpoint this week.
- Alabama remains a model of soul-crushing efficiency, even if it didn’t hang half a hundred on Texas A&M last week.
- Nick Saban acolyte Kirby Smart has Georgia out to a 6-0 start and in firm control of the SEC East thanks to a strong running game and a suffocating defense.
- Auburn is effectively following the same formula, only with a bit more zing to its offense and a loss (at Clemson in a low-scoring tussle) to its credit.
After that, the candidates aren’t awe-inspiring. There’s Louisiana State, two weeks removed from losing to Troy. There’s two-time defending SEC East champs Florida, which is coming off a one-point loss at home to LSU and very nearly fell to both Tennessee and Kentucky last month. Maybe it’s Texas A&M, which is 4-1 with an eight-point setback against Alabama since its opening-week collapse at UCLA.
Kentucky is a commendable 5-1, thought it possesses a penchant for playing to the level of its competition. Tennessee is a decidedly mid-pack team, but at least it is collecting leadership reps as the seventh- or eighth- or ninth-best team in the league. Three schools (Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri) enter the week below .500.
This just makes the path to the playoff a bit less harrowing for the top three teams. That group will benefit from having to play each other down the stretch; Auburn will face both Alabama and Georgia in November, and either an Alabama-Georgia or Auburn-Georgia showdown in the SEC title game appears likely.
All three are impressive and warrant top-10 billing at this stage of the season. None should receive even a bump in perception if it continues to beat up on their struggling conference brethren. At least in 2017, cruising through the bulk of SEC play just means less than it did even a few years ago.
Love that pace
Even when Stanford tailback Bryce Love isn’t at his best, he’s still pretty darned good. Just ask Utah, which hemmed him in for much of the game last week, only to have him pop a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter and finish with 152 yards on 20 carries.
Love’s per-game average dropped to 206.7 yards for the Cardinal (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12), which plays host to Oregon on Saturday in a Chris Petersen Special (an 11 p.m. Eastern kickoff). That keeps him on pace to join two Heisman Trophy winners (Southern California’s Marcus Allen in 1981 and Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988) and a Heisman runner-up (Cornell’s Ed Marinaro in 1971) as the only players to average 200 yards a contest.
Only three others — Iowa State’s Troy Davis in 1996, Texas’s Ricky Williams in 1998 and Texas Christian’s LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000 — have ever cracked 190 yards per game.
Even if this pace doesn’t hold up, Love is likely to reach the 2,000-yard plateau barring an injury. He’s at 1,240 yards now and Stanford isn’t about to change its power rushing offensive identity anytime soon, so he could join former teammate Christian McCaffrey in the 2,000-yard club well before the end of the regular season.
Beavers starting over
There’s usually one or two power-conference teams whose seasons effectively end with a demoralizing performance in the first couple weeks of the season. Oregon State didn’t waste time emerging as a candidate for that dubious distinction after a late August rout at Colorado State. Barely escaping Portland State the next week didn’t help, and things have gotten worse from there.
How much? Third-year coach Gary Andersen walked away this week, leaving approximately $12.6 million on the table after the Beavers (1-5, 0-3 Pac-12) took drubbings from Washington State, Washington and Southern California to open league play. The program’s first one-win season since 1995 could be in play, though the most brutal portion of the schedule has passed.
Even developments elsewhere were bad for Oregon State. Former Beavers quarterback Kyle Kempt played a starring role in Iowa State’s 38-31 upset of Oklahoma last week.
Oregon State is a hard job, though as Dennis Erickson and Mike Riley demonstrated, not an impossible one. But the Beavers’ neighborhood doesn’t help. Washington has awakened from a decade-plus slumber. Stanford remains strong. Oregon, just three years removed from playing for a national title, appears to have steadied things under Willie Taggart. Washington State is in the midst of its best season since at least 2003.
Andersen seemed to have Oregon State on the cusp of a turnaround after a largely competitive second half last year that included a Civil War defeat of then-crumbling Oregon. It didn’t last, and now the Beavers will head into next year with their third full-time coach in five years.
Five games to watch
There’s a reason the Four-Letter Network chose this Saturday to take its weekly road show to an FCS school (albeit to the raucous home of the defending national champions, James Madison). The FBS schedule isn’t deep on great matchups, though these would be the five to take a peek at if the opportunity presents itself.
No. 10 Auburn at Louisiana State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): Auburn (5-1, 3-0 SEC) hasn’t won in Death Valley (Baton Rouge edition) since 1999, a streak Ed Orgeron’s Tigers (4-2, 1-1) would like to continue as they play their first home game since falling to Troy two weeks ago.
Georgia Tech at No. 11 Miami (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC): For all of the ACC’s Coastal Division chaos in recent years, the Hurricanes largely have owned Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-0) and its triple option. Miami (4-0, 2-0) has taken seven of eight in the series and can assert further control of the Coastal with a victory at home as it begins life without injured tailback Mark Walton.
No. 12 Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN): This set up beautifully as a Tom Herman special, with the Longhorns (3-2, 2-0 Big 12) facing a top-10 team that would be a double-digit favorite. Then the Sooners (4-1, 1-1) had to foul things up by losing to Iowa State. Expect a cranky Oklahoma bunch at the Cotton Bowl.
Utah at No. 13 Southern California (Saturday, 8 p.m., ABC): The Trojans (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) will play five of their last six games against Pac-12 South opponents. This is probably the trickiest matchup of the bunch, though the Utes (4-1, 1-1) are grappling with quarterback issues and coming off a loss to Stanford.
Boise State at No. 19 San Diego State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network): Tailback Rashaad Penny and the host Aztecs (6-0, 2-0 Mountain West) are off to their best start since 1975. They’ll have the inside track to hosting the league title game if they can upend the Broncos (3-2, 1-0) in the first meeting of the Mountain West’s steadiest programs since 2014.
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