12:29 AM ET
David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Do you hear it, off in the distance? It’s still faint, because we’re just a month into this strange attempt at college football in 2020, but it’s there — that familiar refrain, the siren song we’ve heard before. Listen.
You thought this college football season would be different just because the entire world is unlike anything we’ve experienced before? Oh, how wrong you were.
Even in a season unlike any other, one cold truth remains: The SEC is going to own our eyeballs, suck up all the air in the playoff debate and ensure that with each new Saturday you’re reminded that here, it just means more.
Yes, Georgia gave us 30 minutes of football against Arkansas last week to assume that maybe the Dawgs wouldn’t find their QB. Ha! watch as the fourth man on the August depth chart toys with Auburn’s defense like some sort of Bond villain devising ever more complicated forms of torture. That’s a good analogy too, since Stetson Bennett IV sure sounds like he could be a diabolical billionaire villain in a Bond film. Instead, he is leading the Bulldogs to a dominant 27-6 win over No. 7 Auburn, throwing for 240 yards in the process. And he did all that while wearing a monocle and twirling a pocket watch (we assume).
Thought Alabama would falter without Tua Tagovailoa? Bless your heart. Mac Jones zipped one dime after another downfield to a receiving corps that seems to just utilize the copy/paste function each year to replenish itself. Alabama embarrassed No. 13 Texas A&M 52-24, with Jones throwing four touchdowns and John Metchie checking in with 181 yards because of course Alabama has a third wide receiver who can put up lines like that.
You wanted to believe Kyle Trask‘s opener was just a fluke for Florida, just six easy touchdowns against Ole Miss’s defense. Nope. Trask was 21-of-29 with four more touchdowns in Saturday’s win over South Carolina, including two to Kyle Pitts, who has emerged as the ultimate college football cheat code, an unstoppable red zone force. Trask is the first SEC QB with 10 TD passes through two games since Tim Couch in 1998, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. But Couch is the wrong comparison. If anything, this Florida offense looks just a bit like LSU’s explosive unit from 2019 that went on to embarrass Oklahoma and Clemson in the playoff. Is Trask the next Joe Burrow? You won’t hear us say that. After all, Burrow is an Ohio guy, whereas Trask might be the only person in central Florida who isn’t from Ohio.
But wait, there’s more. There’s Tennessee, winners of eight straight, now poised for a showdown with Georgia after the Volunteers’ O-line bowled over Missouri on Saturday. Jeremy Pruitt has the Vols rolling, proving the old adage that if at first you don’t succeed in landing the right head coach, try, try, try like 20 more times, and try again.
Even LSU, on the heels of an embarrassing return to the field following a national championship, looked rejuvenated Saturday, upending Vanderbilt 41-7. We shouldn’t be surprised. Nobody knows how to rebound from a hangover quite like Louisiana.
It’s a wealth of riches in the SEC, while the rest of the country offers us little to get excited about.
Clemson? Sure, the Tigers are likely headed back to the playoff again, but anything short of a 50-point win feels a little underwhelming, doesn’t it?
The Big 12? It’s funny to think back now to mid-August, when the entire future of college football was held in the hands of the Big 12’s presidents. The Big Ten and Pac-12 had opted out of the fall. The SEC and ACC wanted to move forward but needed the Big 12’s swing vote. And they foolishly voted yes.
Texas lost to TCU on a brutal, late-game fumble on Saturday, the Longhorns’ sixth defeat as a ranked team against an unranked opponent under Tom Herman. In the past calendar year, Texas is 6-5 with three losses and three more narrow escapes against unranked teams.
Baylor lost to unranked West Virginia. Oklahoma lost for the second straight week, forcing us all to wonder if Lincoln Riley’s magic potion is finally wearing off, like the dramatic final scene of an ’80s teen movie. And Kansas — OK, nothing has changed at Kansas.
We’re still waiting for the Big Ten to play. Ohio State might grab a playoff berth. The Buckeyes are lucky to have nabbed a quarterback from an SEC school. The magic rubs off.
The Pac-12 released its schedule for the fall on Saturday, and in keeping with tradition, it also was officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Could the Group of Five get a playoff team over a second team from the SEC? Oh, have we got a bridge in Starkville we’d like to sell you.
Sure, you might ask about the rest of the SEC, about Texas A&M again failing to compete on the big stage or Auburn flipping the “it’s been this many days since someone wanted to fire Gus Malzahn” sign back to “1” or Mississippi State losing to Arkansas in embarrassing fashion after taking the college football world by storm just a week earlier. But that would be foolish. These teams have endured one full week of a conference-only SEC schedule. You can only expect so much.
No, 2020 has left us with the same storyline we’re so used to seeing in years far less confounding. The SEC is good — very good — and the bulk of this year’s playoff drama will once again come from the league where it just means more.
One offseason storyline in Tuscaloosa had us wondering if the incumbent Jones could hang on to the starting QB job at Alabama with five-star prospect Bryce Young waiting in the wings. Through two games, it sure doesn’t seem like there was much reason for the debate.
Jones annihilated Texas A&M’s secondary on Saturday in Bama’s 52-24 win, unleashing a flurry of deep balls that looked as pretty as anything Tagovailoa unleashed during his time with the Crimson Tide. Jones finished with 435 yards through the air — Tagovailoa had just one better game, with 444 yards versus South Carolina last season — and four touchdowns.
Mac Jones throws for 435 yards and four touchdowns as Alabama routs Texas A&M 52-24.
In fact, how good has Jones been? His numbers through six starts match up quite nicely with his more famous predecessors through their first six starts:
Jones: 72.5% completions, 1,893 total yards, 19 total touchdowns, 3 interceptions
Tagovailoa: 75% completions, 1,617 total yards, 20 total touchdowns, 0 interceptions
Jalen Hurts: 64.3% completions, 1,692 total yards, 14 total touchdowns, 2 interceptions
Kiffin gets win No. 1
After putting up 613 yards in a loss to Florida in its opener last week, the Rebels gave Lane Kiffin his first win with a dramatic 42-41 victory in overtime — a win that came courtesy of a missed Kentucky PAT.
How much fun is Ole Miss? There’s been 168 points scored in its first two games.
Lane Kiffin gets his first victory with the Rebels after Ole Miss answers a Kentucky score in OT then adds the game-winning extra point to win 42-41.
In the opener, the Rebels’ defense helped Kyle Trask kick off his Heisman campaign as he threw for 416 yards and six touchdowns. For an encore, the Ole Miss D allowed three — three! — 100-yard runners for Kentucky. According to ESPN Stats & Info data, that’s the first time an SEC team had three players go over the century mark in the same game since Arkansas did it way back in 2001 against (you guessed it) Ole Miss.
Kiffin’s offense looks impressive so far, but his D might end up playing on a lot of Heisman highlight reels.
Oh, and Ole Miss gets Alabama next.
At least he’s consistent
Jimbo Fisher inked a $75 million deal in 2017 to raise Texas A&M from a team that pulled the occasional upset to one that could consistently compete with Alabama in the SEC West.
Give Fisher credit: He got the consistency part right.
In three games as head coach at A&M, he has lost to the Tide 45-23 (in 2018), 47-28 (in 2019) and 52-24 (on Saturday).
Under Fisher, A&M is now 2-8 versus opponents who finished the season ranked (we’ll assume Alabama counts here) but 16-2 against everyone else.
Join the club
NC State likes to call itself Quarterback U because of its five former players now on nfl rosters: Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley. They have given NC State plenty of big performances over the past 20 years, but current QB Devin Leary‘s stat line from Saturday was historic.
Leary, making his first start of the season after missing much of camp due to COVID-19, was exceptional in upsetting Pitt, finishing 28-of-44 passing for 336 yards, four touchdowns and no picks, while engineering a flawless final drive in going 79 yards on eight plays for a go-ahead TD.
NC State QB Devin Leary comes through in the clutch with a go-ahead touchdown strike to Emeka Emezie with just 23 seconds remaining.
It was a statement performance, and the numbers put Leary squarely among the past greats. Glennon, Brissett and Finley never posted a 330-yard, four-TD game with no interceptions. Wilson did it just once, against an FCS foe in 2009. To find the last NC State QB to post that line in a conference game, you have to go all the way back to Rivers’ spectacular senior season in 2003, when he did it in back-to-back weeks against Virginia and Florida State (and then again in a bowl win over Kansas).
Scenes from the stands
There isn’t much action in the stands this season due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Week 5 at least offered us a special scene in Gainesville, Florida.
A hat tip to the folks at Florida, who honored our friend Edward Aschoff with his own cutout in the stands for the Gators’ big win over South Carolina. Nobody would be more excited about the Gators’ hot start than Edward.
— Florida Gators (@FloridaGators) October 2, 2020
Overreaction of the week
When a potential first-round QB plays just one game in a season, it’s going to get a little attention. Such was life for North Dakota State‘s Trey Lance on Saturday, when the Bison took on Central Arkansas for a one-game showcase affair that surely had nfl scouts on the edge of their seats.
The outcome? Pretty meh.
Lance led a comeback bid for a 39-28 win, in which he finished just 15-of-30 for 149 yards, two touchdowns and his first career interception. Down goes his draft stock, right?
The instinct will be to make some sweeping statements about Lance’s nfl potential from this one, particularly since his stellar 2019 season wasn’t seen by a ton of fans, and the caliber of competition he faced at the FCS level will mean there will be doubters.
But Lance also ran for 143 yards on Saturday, scoring twice on the ground and showcasing his versatility. He was awful on deep balls — missing his first eight, according to ESPN Stats & Info — but Lance got a bit more comfortable later in the game, completing three of his final four with a TD. And that one pick? It came after 307 passes without one.
In his only game of the season, projected first-round pick Trey Lance throws two touchdowns and adds another two with his legs to lead North Dakota State to victory.
Even if this was set up as a showcase event, it wouldn’t have made too much sense to predict Lance’s future in a one-off contest against a team that already had kicked off its own rust.
Will Lance be an nfl star? That’s tough to say, but Saturday’s performance didn’t shake our confidence or raise our hopes. It was … just a game.
Underreaction of the week
Zappe’s four-game season came to an end with a dramatic 33-30 win over Eastern Kentucky in which he added to his already eye-popping stat line with 380 yards and three TDs.
It was actually a pretty mundane performance by Zappe’s standards.
Houston Baptist opted to play in the fall, signing up for a four-game slate against EKU and three FBS schools, but that didn’t stop Zappe from putting up a season’s worth of passing yards against seemingly better competition.
He finished his season with 15 touchdown passes, one pick and an astonishing 1,833 passing yards. How ridiculous is that tally? That’s more yards in four games than 10 FBS teams had in all of 2019, including Kentucky and Northwestern.
Justin Fields looms in the background of all of this, but he’ll get his turn in a few weeks. Right now, here are our top five Heisman Trophy contenders from the group who actually have played a game.
Trevor Lawrence continues Clemson’s dominance this season throwing three touchdowns in the Tigers’ 41-23 win over Virginia.
1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Another week, another 300 yards and three touchdowns. Lawrence was spectacular in his first two seasons, but he has been borderline flawless in 2020.
2. Florida QB Kyle Trask
He has thrown 10 TDs in two games. In the entire 2017 season before Dan Mullen arrived at Florida, the Gators threw for … 10 touchdowns.
3. Alabama QB Mac Jones
Jones is already making a terrific Heisman case, and next week he gets an Ole Miss defense that has allowed 1,201 yards in two games. He might throw for 1,000 yards depending on how mad Nick Saban gets about Lane Kiffin’s tweets this week.
The Hurricanes had the week off to get ready for Clemson. If King is still in Heisman contention next week, there’s a good chance the entire playoff picture just blew up.
Haven’t been paying attention to the Cougars? You’re missing out on a terrific talent at QB in Wilson, who is averaging better than 13 yards per pass through three games.
Move over, Timmy
Travis Etienne‘s first-quarter TD against Virginia was one of the best of his brilliant career. He takes the handoff, jumps out to his left, faces a tackler head-on, spins out of another tackle, keeps his balance and darts 16 yards for the score. It was a perfect showcase of Etienne’s dynamic skill set.
Travis Etienne breaks multiple tackles for the touchdown giving him 38 games with a touchdown, tying Tim Tebow and Kenneth Dixon for most in FBS history.
It also just so happened to be the 38th different game Etienne has scored in — tying the FBS record also held by Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon and Florida’s Tim Tebow.
And, of course, even if Etienne doesn’t score again this season, he can still come back again in 2021. And you thought Hunter Renfrow was at Clemson forever.
Shiver me timbers!
Think the Hogs are stoked about pulling the upset over Mike Leach and Mississippi State? You’re darrrrrrn right.
A week ago, Mississippi State was the talk of college football after racking up more than 600 yards against the defending champs as swashbuckling Leach made his Air Raid debut in the SEC. A week later, the Bulldogs are plundered by Arkansas, a team that had lost 10 straight games.
Hand it to Arkansas’ social media folks, though. They were prepped and ready for the upset.
Under-the-radar play of the week
Are we ready for the Coastal Carolina push for the playoff? OK, it’s a long shot, but watch Grayson McCall find Isaiah Likely for a 72-yard TD here and you get an idea of how explosive the Chanticleers — now 3-0 — can be on offense. McCall, a redshirt freshman, is off to an astonishing start, completing 67% of his throws with 11 total touchdowns and one pick. Coastal Carolina has now beaten Kansas and Arkansas State, which has a win over K-State, so there’s a good chance the Chanticleers would win the Big 12. More importantly for them, however, is a huge matchup against undefeated Louisiana next week with a shot to take command of the Sun Belt.
Grayson McCall goes deep to Isaiah Likely, who takes it to the house for a Chanticleers touchdown.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Tulsa‘s tilt against UCF sure didn’t seem like it would be much of a matchup. The Golden Hurricane stumbled into Orlando after a horrendous performance against Oklahoma State (0-of-12 on third down, 15 penalties) and two weeks off. They ran into a UCF team clicking on all cylinders. So what happened? Tulsa made its case to save coach Philip Montgomery’s job by pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the season, erasing a 23-5 deficit with a late first-half TD and scoring the final 17 points to win 34-26. Tulsa’s triumph upends the Group of Five’s battle for a New Year’s Six bowl bid, which now seems to be in the hands of Cincinnati, SMU and BYU.
Best bets and bad beats
There are bad beats. There are very bad beats. And then there are beats that are so horrendous you consider giving up gambling and moving to a monastery in Tibet with no access to sports for the remainder of your life. The end of the TCU-Texas game falls into that last category. The total for the game closed at 61.5, but for most of the week it was at 63, until dipping just before Saturday’s kickoff. So a significant chunk of bettors with the under still felt safe when TCU held a 33-29 lead with the ball with just 6 seconds left. All TCU needed to do was punt and run out the clock. Of course, that punt would be a dangerous one, from its own 15-yard line. Gary Patterson wasn’t interested in rolling the dice. He had QB Max Duggan take the snap, go backward into the end zone and go down for a safety as time expired. The safety put the total over the number, when a punt or, exasperatingly, even a long scramble to run out the clock, would have gone the other way.
If you had money on Abilene Christian on Saturday, well, you might have bigger problems. Still, there’s no doubt the end of Army’s 55-23 win was a brutal beat. The Black Knights were a 31.5-point favorite and for good reason. Army dominated Abilene Christian from the kick, taking a 23-3 lead into the half and going up 48-17 with 4 minutes remaining in the contest. But the Wildcats scored on a 61-yard pass with 3:01 to play, putting them in position for a cover, assuming Army would just run out the clock — which, let’s face it, Army appears to be doing from the opening kick most weeks. Instead, Anthony Adkins broke off a 28-yard run, scoring with 37 seconds to go and giving the Black Knights the cover.
In all fairness, bettors of the under in the Oklahoma State-Kansas game had no reason to hope for a cover. It was 44-7 with 12 minutes to play, just two points shy of the total, which closed at 53. The only hope was the Cowboys would take their foot off the gas and cruise home with an easy win. And that’s very nearly what happened, only the Jayhawks wouldn’t comply. In typical Kansas fashion, it couldn’t even lose without a little embarrassment, giving up a 14-play, 51-yard drive that ended with a chip-shot field goal, putting the game over the total with just 59 seconds to go.