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I’m writing this after midnight from my hotel room in Tuscaloosa. I just got my 12 and eight year old boys to bed, but not before my 12 year old looked at my SEC rankings and started arguing with me that I was overvaluing South Carolina because Will Levis hadn’t played for Kentucky tonight. (Sidenote: how much fun is it when your kids get old enough to legit be able to talk and debate college football with you? All my 12 year old wants to do with me is talk about sports, it’s incredible, like going back in time to your own childhood.)
Anyway, we’ll get to my rankings a bit later in the column, but for now, Alabama survived against Texas A&M. Just like the Tide survived against Texas earlier in the season in Austin. Only this time, they survived against a lone star state team without Heisman trophy winner Bryce Young.
And the Tide survived despite four turnovers and two missed field goals.
This game should have never come down to the final drive for Texas A&M because Alabama should have put the Aggies away long before the final Aggie attempt to win the game from the Tide two yard line. But even still I thought Haynes King played his best game as a Texas A&M Aggie, withstanding a torrential pass rush and making play after play in the face of onrushing Bama defenders.
I know A&M lost tonight, but this is now two straight years the Aggies have gone toe to toe with Alabama.
If anything, I thought this year’s game served as strong evidence that last year wasn’t a fluke. In the past two seasons the combined score is now Alabama 62 Texas A&M 61. That’s 120 minutes of nearly dead even football. Proving he can play with Alabama, crazily, isn’t Jimbo Fisher’s issue right now, it’s proving he can consistently beat teams that are nowhere near as good as Alabama.
I’ll discuss that in a bit below.
Meanwhile for Alabama Jalen Milroe may well turn into the next in a long line of sensational quarterbacks for Alabama, but he’s not there yet in the passing game. He turned the ball over three times and when Texas A&M could make him throw the ball, he was just okay. In fact, it looked like Alabama was trying to limit Milroe’s passing reads and passing attempts pretty significantly in this game. And that almost cost the Tide in a major way.
At times Milroe shoowed real flashes — a third and eight touchdown pass for 29 yards to Ja’Corey Brooks was an absolute dime — but he struggled on other throws and tucked and ran the football quite a bit in passing option scenarios.
Which is why the number one question Alabama fans were all asking each other as they left the stadium tonight was whether Bryce Young would be back for the Tennessee game.
Because if he’s not, well, Tennessee might really be able to beat Alabama this year.
No, really, the Vols could, I’m not even kidding.
So let’s dive into the Starting 11 and talk about what we learned as we neared the halfway point of this season and let’s start with the biggest game of the night, what we learned from Alabama and Texas A&M.
1. Alabama plucked Jahmyr Gibbs away from Georgia Tech and he’s a complete stud who is saving them while they play without Bryce Young.
Last week the light bulb appeared to go off for Gibbs against Arkansas and he followed it up with a 21 carry for 154 yard performance tonight. Gibbs is a complete homerun hitter at tailback and he would complement Bryce Young really well. But, of course, he’s also become the focal point of the offense with Milroe now at quarterback.
So Gibbs is a real bright spot for the Tide, especially now that he’s rounding into form with the Tide offense.
But as good as Gibbs is, the biggest question for Alabama is Bryce Young’s health. Namely, when will he be back?
And the first thing I think about for all of these athletes now that I’m older is, what would I do if Bryce Young were my kid? I’m on the college football fan circle of life where I’ve moved from being a kid and idolizing all the players, to being a college kid and young adult and feeling like a contemporary of the players, to now feeling like a dad of all the players. My oldest will turn 15 years old this January so I look out on the field now and realize I’m old enough to be all these player’s dads. And if I were Bryce Young’s dad what I’d be thinking is this: I’m not putting my son back on the field until a bunch of doctors I trust tell me he can’t hurt himself or make his shoulder worse. Young has, potentially, $100 million riding on his shoulder’s health and he’s already won a Heisman. If it’s me, I’m not letting my kid back on the field until he’s 100%.
And I’d bet that ends up being the decision made for Young. So the question is, when will he be 100% again.
Because Alabama has four challenging games coming up: at Tennessee, Mississippi State, at LSU and at Ole Miss. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Alabama wins all four of these games even if they have Bryce Young. But if they don’t have him, I think they might well go 2-2.
So until we know Bryce Young’s status, it’s hard to assess the Tide’s title chances.
With him, Bama’s a playoff team, without him I don’t think they are.
It feels that simple.
2. Okay, what do we think about Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher now?
It’s wild that Jimbo has managed to play Alabama almost dead even for two straight years, but it’s the rest of the teams on his schedule that are causing him issues.
A&M is 3-3 now at the halfway point in the season.
Here’s the remaining six games: at South Carolina, Ole Miss, Florida, at Auburn, UMass, and LSU. I mean, I could make a strong case for you that A&M could win all six of these games. But I also watched App State and Mississippi State so I could make the case to you that A&M will go 3-3 in these games too.
I just don’t have a good read on Jimbo Fisher’s team at all.
And I don’t think any Aggie fan does either. And that’s what’s so frustrating for Aggie fan. After five years, that shouldn’t be the case. You should know exactly what you have.
But I do think this loss, even though it was a loss, makes A&M fans feel better about the status of the program. Last year’s win doesn’t look like a fluke.
Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to play like the opponent is Alabama every weekend.
3. Tennessee destroyed LSU 40-13 on the road in Baton Rouge.
That was Tennessee’s biggest road win margin against a top 25 team in 27 years, since crushing Alabama in 1995.
I’m trying to keep from getting too excited, but I’m downright giddy about Tennessee’s program, the most excited I’ve been in years. Tennessee was 5-0 back in 2016 under Butch Jones, but it felt like a smoke and mirrors 5-0, this 5-0 under Josh Heupel feels very stable. The Vols are simply better than the five teams they’ve beaten.
In fact, Josh Heupel, right now, reminds me of Steve Spurrier in the 1990’s. It just feels like Heupel’s always got open receivers running all over the field.
Tennessee scored 40 points at LSU and I didn’t even think the offense was that good, particularly in the passing game. Hendon Hooker missed a bunch of big play throws he ordinarily makes. The Vols could have easily put up over fifty in Baton Rouge.
I don’t remember the last time Tennessee beat an SEC team on the road by 27 points and I didn’t even think they played that well on offense. It’s wild.
I’ve said for years that you know if you have a stud as a head coach in college football by year two. And I think the Vols have a stud in Heupel.
One of my favorite stats is that every SEC coach who has won a league title has won at least nine games by year two. Well, it looks like Heupel will win nine or more in year two.
So now the question for Tennessee is how high is the ceiling this year? Well, Tennessee hasn’t won ten games in a season since 2007 and that certainly feels like a reasonable goal for this year.
Especially since the Vols will be favored in every game the rest of the way except for Alabama and Georgia. Kentucky, UT Martin, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt should all be wins. That doesn’t mean the Vols can’t lose to those teams, just that those teams don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up if Tennessee keeps executing and plays well.
It honestly feels like the SEC East title will come down to one game: Tennessee at Georgia on November 5th. The team that wins that game will be in Atlanta.
And I think Tennessee has a puncher’s chance, given this offense, to pull off an upset against either Alabama or Georgia.
4. Ohio State and Michigan continue to roll towards their rivalry game.
Next week Penn State goes on the road at Michigan and we will get a real test of both teams. Then in two weeks Penn State hosts Ohio State. The Nittany Lions, clearly, will need to at least split these October games in order to be considered in the running alongside Ohio State and Michigan for a Big Ten East title.
But for now it feels like the Big Ten title will be decided in Columbus in November.
And that, frankly, the team that loses this game will still have a really decent shot of ending up in the playoff too.
Again, Penn State could change all of this by winning one of these two games, but it feels like the Nittany Lions aren’t quite to the Wolverine or Buckeye level right now.
The Big Ten west, meanwhile, is a total cluster, but Bret Bielema has Illinois out to 5-1, which is a really impressive job by him.
But can we just do away with divisions forever, please?
Frankly, and no one else seems to think this but me, I’d be fine with doing away with conference title games too. If two teams finish with the same record just make them co-champs.
With a 12 team playoff, the conference title game is going to turn into the conference basketball tourneys, a fun prelude to the NCAA tournament that most don’t remember very long.
5. UCLA is 6-0 under Chip Kelly and it feels like the Bruins are still under the radar.
That may change shortly as UCLA has a bye week before heading on the road against Oregon, but looking at UCLA’s schedule there’s a pretty decent chance the Bruins are 9-1, or better, when they play USC on November 19th.
As for Utah, the season basically comes down to USC in Salt Lake City on Saturday. Win that game or the Pac 12 is probably close to being out the window.
By the way, earlier I said you know by year two if your guy is going to be a stud, well, Kelly’s in his fifth year at UCLA and it took him four seasons to have a winning record. (To be fair year three was the covid year.)
So there are exceptions to my year two rule, although Kelly was in the national championship game in year two with Oregon.
6. Texas destroyed Oklahoma 49-0.
The Longhorns, with Quinn Ewers back under center, certainly looked the part of a top 15 team.
But, man, Brent Venables looks like he’s in completely over his head right now.
And what would really scare me if I’m a Sooner fan is that Venables is a defensive guy and that’s where the team fell apart the first time, giving up 41 to Kansas State, 55 to TCU and now 49 to Texas. The way Oklahoma is playing right now the Sooners could lose every game left on their schedule.
And they don’t feel like a very good bet, honestly, to finish eligible for a bowl.
I know it’s only year one, but Venables is going to enter year two in Oklahoma on the hottest seat in the country.
7. Can we talk about how amazing the games are next weekend for a moment?
We’ve got undefeated Penn State at undefeated Michigan, undefeated Alabama at undefeated Tennessee, and undefeated Oklahoma State at undefeated TCU.
That’s simply spectacular.
And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve also got undefeated USC on the road at Utah.
8. Did I mention that Tennessee and Alabama are playing against each other as undefeated teams for the first time since 1989?
I was ten years old the last time both Tennessee and Alabama were undefeated in the third Saturday in October. Hell, my own kids don’t even believe me when I tell them how big of a rivalry this game used to be before Nick Saban got to Tuscaloosa.
I’ll be there for Big Noon Kickoff and I really think Knoxville may burn to the ground if Tennessee beats Alabama after going 0-15 against Nick Saban.
It will be like Victory in Europe being announced in Times Square, random couples will be making out with the Sunsphere in the background, it would be pure bedlam.
I can’t wait for next weekend already.
9. How does Vegas rank the title contenders as we approach the midway point of the season?
Here are the top 13 teams — this is everyone whose national title odds are 100 to 1 and under.
Ohio State +190
Oklahoma State +6000
Ole Miss +8000
Penn State +1000
10. Here’s my OutKick national top ten.
Remember that I only rank teams based on what we’ve actually seen on the field, not what we expected to see on the field before the season started.
1. Ohio State
7. Ole Miss
9. Oklahoma State
11. My SEC power rankings 1-14
The only team I have ranked above a team they’ve lost to this year is Mississippi State over LSU. I know the Bulldogs were awful in the second half on the road in Death Valley, but the past two weeks they have dominated Texas A&M and Arkansas so I have them above LSU, who was crushed by Tennessee this weekend. Otherwise I’ve got every team ranked above the teams they’ve beaten.
4. Ole Miss
5. Mississippi State
7. Texas A&M
9. South Carolina
Final thought as I finish this after one in the morning with both my boys asleep in this Tuscaloosa hotel room: How awesome is it to get to share college football with your families?
This is why I think college football is the best sport in America. There’s just nothing else like it when it comes to generations sharing it all together.
I still want to pinch myself every Saturday morning that I get to do this as a job.
See y’all in Knoxville.