College football is played for games like these. South Carolina downed Georgia in 'a game of inches,' in which South Carolina benefited from a barely missed 28-yard field goal try in the final minutes that would have erased the Gamecocks' lead, then got precisely 3 inches on a 4th down and inches run to keep the ball out of Todd Gurley's hands and bleed out the clock for the victory.
"I'll tell you what - our defense didn't stop 'em much, but when we had to we did. I'm really proud of the entire team," Coach Spurrier said on the field after stealing the victory. "Tonight, it was meant for us to win."
Spurrier did it by turning around his third-down defense, and leaning on a power run game that everyone expected to see at the start of the season. After wearing down the Dawgs, the Gamecocks rushed for as many yards and as many 10-yard gains in the fourth quarter as the other three quarters combined. Dylan Thompson proved effective, throwing for 271 yards on 21/30 completions.
Afterward, Gary Danielson had this takeaway: "The difference between the elite teams and the average teams and the bottom teams [in the SEC] has closed up dramatically since I entered this conference 8 years ago." It's an observation that has only positive implications for the conference going forward, particularly now in era of the CFP. Before, contenders in the BCS took a severe gut shot for suffering a loss. The SEC, meanwhile, rarely allowed any team to emerge victorious without some blemishes to its name, as five of the seven SEC teams to play in the national championship from 2006-12 had collected at least one loss during the season.
And yet it proved a risk worth taking: twice, an SEC team entered the BCS championship as the #1 seed with an unbeaten record, but five times, the eventual champion snuck in to the title match as a #2 seed, where it would systematically blow out their opponent by a combined 166-66. This is a cliche and a truism that some still don't believe, bu adversity and elite competition pay off, and the SEC has it. Now in the CFP, it will be even easier for an SEC team to represent the conference, and it will be as prepared as ever for the mental, physical, and emotional adversity that a two-game playoff would impose.
Nowhere is this more relevant than in the SEC West, where the undisputed worst team in the division, Arkansas, just walked into Lubbock, Texas and picked off a mid-level Big 12 team, 49-28. Texas Tech's air raid offense was held to 252 passing yards and 101 rushing yards, while Arkansas bulldozed its way to 438 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns, and 6.4 yards per carry. Amazingly, it was also the smallest margin of victory for the six West teams that played this weekend. Looking for success in a pressure cooker division may feel misleading, and there's still a good chance that an SEC East team emerges equally prepared and less exhausted. But nowhere else in football is there a division quite like the SEC West.
Sunday Morning Brews Poll - Week 3
All of that was going to be a prelude to a very shaky choice, which was keeping UGA #1 in the poll. Oregon (which Sports Illustrated has #1) certainly has seemed the least vulnerable, given that its kryptonite was supposed to be the green of Michigan State's uniforms. That didn't turn out to be the case.
This isn't to say that the Ducks are entirely invulnerable. Its defense is still weak - almost exactly as weak as Auburn's was last season. It's also one of the twenty-five worst defenses on first down. Still, what's special is their penchant for big plays, ranking in the top 20 so far in interceptions, sacks, and tackles for loss. As Michigan State found out, it's a very easy defense to pick apart - right up until they find themselves moving backward and forced into making a bad decision. It's a wily bend-don't-break defense.
It's always easy to imagine gloom and doom for the Ducks. Always, they seem to be in the picture for the championship, and always they seem to fall just short. Perhaps that will happen again. Perhaps they won't be able to match up with an SEC defensive line. Perhaps they'll fall 42-16 to Arizona, or 26-20 to Stanford. But biases aside, they have earned the ranking so far. A team that's gone 67-12 in six years has a chance to break out.
Alabama is looking better than it did a couple weeks ago. For one, they seem more settled at quarterback. Blake Sims and Jake Coker combined for a 17/24 night, with 214 yards and a 2/0 touchdown ratio. It's the kind of muted performance that draws reminders of early Patriots and Crimson Tide champions. It doesn't hurt that five running backs toted the ball effectively in an easy win against Southern Miss, and it definitely doesn't hurt that their coach is Nick Saban.
"I told the players (Friday), ‘You know what, five years, ten years, 15 years, 20 years down the road, somebody somewhere - whether it's the barbershop or the used car lot - it's going to come up that you played football at Alabama.
"And the next question that's going to get asked is, they're going to say, ‘When?' And you're going to tell them 2014. Then they're going to say something based on the identity that you created individually and collectively as a team this year."
There isn't a motivator like him.
Another week, same old Oklahoma. Julian WIlson returned a 100-yard interception return, Keith Ford got 91 combined yards and 2 touchdowns, and Sterling Shepard had another 100-yard game. The secondary will allow completions against a better offense, but they forced Justin Worley into a 21/44 night with two picks.
Baylor was up 35-0 at the half on Buffalo in UB Stadium in New York before ultimately winning 63-21. Of the Bears' nine touchdown drives, only one took as long as three minutes. Also, consider this - collectively, the Bears quarterbacks have thrown for an average of 416 yards, 13 touchdowns to 1 interception, and are getting almost 18 yards a reception. There are some warning signs for the defense - 21 points against Buffalo, poor red-zone defense - but this team is dealing in shades of great.
It was a game Georgia should have won, and a game where basically everything went wrong for the Bulldogs to make it happen. A 54-yard touchdown by Todd Gurley got called back by a holding penalty, Marshall Morgan missed two field goals inside 45 yards including one to tie the game in the fourth, and Hutson Mason struggled mightily with a wet football - apparently that's a weakness of his. If SoCal taught me anything last week, it's to not elevate or drop a team too far because of a result it didn't fully earn. Georgia will bounce back.
Jimbo Fisher is another coach not to bet against, but his Seminoles will have to earn their ranking in 2014. Luckily, they have a great opportunity coming up this week in the Tigers. Clemson still remembers the 51-3 loss a year ago, and a win for the underdog here would erase a trying start to the season. Even if Florida State comes prepared, it wouldn't answer questions that they 'get up' for opponents they think are worthy - and before 2013, the Seminoles' problem under Fisher had always been a come-from-nowhere loss in the ACC. Is this team as motivated as it was a year ago? And even more worrisome, can it fix its defensive line? The Seminoles are 120th in the nation in sacks, and have given up more than 200 yards of rushing offense a game.
Kenny Hill threw another four touchdowns with no interceptions, bringing his season total to 11 and 0. Meanwhile, the Texas Aggies are 3-0, looking up at a potential 10-win campaign or more. One has to assume this team will start showing its warts - particularly its youth on defense - sometime soon. But in the hierarchy for the SEC West, A&M has rudely interjected itself time and again, as great coached teams tend to do. Making it a little harder for them, though, they have to travel to play both Auburn and Alabama.
The Tigers get a test this week, going on the road for the first time to face Kansas State. That's the least of their worries, though. Here's the Tigers' stretch from October through November: LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, Samford, Alabama.
The focus that was not on display last week was finally on hand against Army, a 35-0 win for the Cardinal that featured few standout performances but plenty of overall good play.
"I think the defense is exactly where we want it to be," said David Shaw after the game. "Offensively, we're close. We hate being close."
The Spartans enjoyed a bye this week; they were not a part of this weekend's backwash from last week's embarrassment.
Purdue put a serious fight into the Irish, as they tend to do. Ultimately, it was all good for Notre Dame, who got a victory the old-fashioned way. Golson has shown poise and patience, the hallmark of great athletes, and the team just goes out and fights hard every single week.
"[Golson] just understands the game," said Brian Kelly afterward. "The game is slower for him than it was when he was here in his first year... He's not there yet. We missed some things tonight that would have changed the complexion of the game."
Notre Dame did suffer a couple injuries, including two defensive backs and a defensive end - a position the Irish are already thin at. Brian VanGorder made the right halftime adjustments and shut out Purdue in the second half.
USC was probably ranked too high after a win against a team that outplayed them thoroughly. Still, it was a return to earth for Sarkisian's squad after USC struggled pitifully to establish the run - 0.7 ypc, 29 carries, 0 TD's. Javorius Allen was more effective as a receiver, getting 118 yards through the air in addition to his 31 on the ground. Kessler looked fine, special teams looked fine, and the secondary was as strong as ever, allowing 54 passing yards. They were undone by Florida transfer Tyler Murphy, who quarterbacked the team and rushed for 191 yards. This was an example of concentration and the necessity to take every time, and every assignment, seriously.
Wisconsin also enjoyed a bye in Week 3. Hopefully Week 4 is kinder to the Big Ten, when its two best teams are able to take the field against Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan.
LSU held Louisiana-Monroe to under 100 yards total, 0.9 per rush and 2.6 per pass. LSU's quarterback, however, put up this: 11/18, 139 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception. He did also run for 20 yards, so, there's that. No matter how good their offensive line is, it's tough to pave the ground game when the defense stacks 8 in the box.
Ole Miss finally looked the part in a 56-15 win of Louisiana-Lafayette, and Bo Wallace finally converted his high yardage numbers (his third straight 300-yard game) into a good-looking TD ratio. But Wallace is not the star of this team; the secondary is. The Rebels lead the nation in interceptions after capturing another 3 against ULL, and like LSU, this is a team with a questionable rushing attack but a monstrous defense. LSU is #2 in the country in scoring defense, and Ole Miss is #4.
This is where things get a little shaky. Is TCU a top-16 team? Maybe not, but they have earned it so far. There's also the matter of who else in the Big 12 is collecting conference wins other than Baylor and Oklahoma. TCU just wrapped up a convincing win against a good foe, as Trevone Boykin led the Frogs in passing and rushing. They win the turnover battle, have a top-40 offense, and have a well-rounded defense that's been a top-10 unit so far.
Yes, you are seeing SEC teams creep up the standings, and Missouri has earned it after a cringe-worthy beatdown of UCF. Mauk managed just 144 yards but got a 4/1 TD ratio, and Missouri's rushing attack of Murphy and Hansbrough has produced 5.5 yards per carry. This team is a top-40 unit in 3rd down offense, red zone defense, penalties, punting, interceptions, fumble recoveries, scoring offense, scoring defense, yards per catch, sacks, TFL's, passing efficiency and passing efficiency defense, and sacks allowed. You can cut off an arm and a leg from an SEC team, but they just keep going. Unexplainable.
Yes, you are seeing SEC teams creep up the standings, and South Carolina has earned it after beating one of the top teams in the country. South Carolina's rushing attack wasn't on par with Georgia's (4.2 ypc, 176 yards, versus 5.7 ypc, 217 yards), but Dylan Thompson has been a playmaker and the defense did enough to overcome two turnovers.
The offense is still growing, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where Deshaun Watson isn't leading the team before the year is up. In fact, sooner might be better than later: the freshman five-star has a line of 76.9%, 4/0 and 16.4 ypa, while the senior Cole Stoudt is at 63.3%, 1/1 and 7.4. The Tigers also need to start settling on who's going to tote the rock.
The Mountaineers showed again that they're an improved team, getting 694 yards on the Terps and holding Maryland receivers not named Diggs to under 100 yards. C.J. Brown resorted to doing it all for Maryland, a bad sign going forward, but Clint Trickett still outplayed him, getting 511 yards on 37/49 and 4 touchdowns.
OSU's backup quarterback did just fine, thank you very much, going 16/30 for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns. The rushing offense was mediocre (162 yards, 3.3 ypc), but this is a UTSA squad that lost the previous week to RichRod's Wildcats, 26-23, and held his ground attack to 223 yards and 1 touchdown. The Cowboys get a bye before a Thursday night showdown with Texas Tech.
The Buckeyes won, 66-0, against an overwhelmed Kent State team that has lost 13 of its last 17 games. This was the high point for the Big Ten in Week 3, and now Ohio State is rewarded with a week off before games against Cincinnati, Maryland, then Rutgers. In short, the Buckeyes are now entering a mid-season acclimation period for their new offense. The coaches will do some tinkering and play to this team's strengths.
The Utes took the week off to prepare for Michigan. Sometime during their research, they'll learn to attack the offensive line. This may go well for them.
Like East Carolina against Virginia Tech, Virginia is a football team that pulled off an unlikely win against a top-25 team, but may be better than fans expected. East Carolina's resume is pretty stout: they've hung tough with South Carolina, beat VT and blew out North Carolina Central. So is Virginia's: they lost by 8 to UCLA, blew out Richmond and beat Louisville.
Still, this is a discouraging loss for Petrino's squad. Even against a defense that's held opposing quarterbacks to 55.6% completions, Louisville underwhelmed dramatically (20/43), and the running attack got stuffed by Virginia's front. But despite the takeaways that Louisville is closer to the middle of the ACC than expected, and Virginia is not going anywhere themselves, this is also potentially just a bounceback game for a Louisville team that's still getting comfortable in a new identity. The rushing defense has been fantastic, and the weak link - passing offense - is its head coach's specialty. Some adversity is to be expected when a team loses 3 first-round draft picks. They'll have a few weeks to prepare for Syracuse.
A 38-24 win over Colorado constituted a muted performance for Arizona State, but until BYU or Duke beat someone of consequence, they will stay here. They have a fantastic receiver in Jaelen Strong and the 13th-ranked rush attack in the country. The defense isn't bad, either, but they're susceptible to a decent running offense. Unluckily, they'll start seeing a bunch of those after their bye this week.
Auburn vs. Kansas State (Thursday night), 7:30 pm
This probably won't be a contest, but if it is, it will be because Kansas State's front seven was able to contain Auburn's rushing attack and make them throw to win.
Florida vs. Alabama, 3:30 pm
Look out for Demarcus Robinson, who in two games has 339 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns.
Clemson vs. Florida State, 8:00 pm
Both teams got a bye to prepare for this game, which will have implications in Week 10 and beyond when both these teams will have matured.