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It’s less than four hours from New York City to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. But it feels like two completely different countries right now.
On Saturday in New York City you needed a vaccine passport to eat in a restaurant or grab a drink in a bar, work out in a gym, go to a movie, or attend any sporting event. Just four hours to the west nearly 110,000 maskless Penn State Nittany Lion fans who had to provide no health records to anyone to attend the game reveled in their school’s biggest football game in two years, packed as close together as possible all clad in white in one of the great football cathedrals of this country.
Watch this video and tell me which America you want to live in, the one where you have freedom and embrace life or the one where you either bow down to the authoritarian whims of a group of leaders who don’t even follow their own rules or have no ability to do anything.
New York City requires vaccine passports to eat in a restaurant or go to the gym. Meanwhile less than four hours away Penn State has over 100k people packed in a football stadium. Which life do you want? We really are living in two Americas right now. pic.twitter.com/tp3ltQ5HMq
I choose freedom.
And I bet almost all of you reading this right now make the same choice.
Okay, let’s dive into the Starting 11.
1. Alabama looked mortal against Florida.
Despite one of the most hyped stadiums at kickoff you’ll see all season, Alabama did what the Crimson Tide has done since they went on the road against number one Georgia back in 2008 — they showed up and dominated an opponent who was excited beyond belief to challenge them.
This was the first number one ranked team in the Swamp since Florida State in 1997, the first number one SEC team visiting since the 1950’s. This was Dan Mullen’s chance to send a massive signal to all of college football, the Gators were back as national title contenders.
Except Alabama raced out to a 21-3 lead, leaving most of us lamenting the fact that the Tide have effectively ended the excitement of college football with the metronomic quality of the beatings they deliver year after year to would be contenders.
But then something strange happened.
The Tide wilted in the Florida heat.
A 21-3 lead turned into 21-16 early in the second half and suddenly we had a ballgame.
In fact, it was more than just a ballgame, the Florida Gators, who trailed the entire game, had a very real chance to win. With 3:10 remaining Florida lined up for their two point conversion attempt to tie the game. Alabama got the stop and ran out the clock, but the 31-29 win didn’t inspire confidence that the Tide were unbeatable. And I’m not a moral victory guy, it felt like Dan Mullen and Florida, even in defeat, had sent an important message to the rest of the conference — the Gators aren’t going anywhere.
Sure, I know partly this response reflects our standard of excellence for the Tide.
If just about any other team in college football goes on the road and beats a top ten ranked opponent (I know Florida was ranked 11 for all your sticklers out there) then we praise the road win to the high heavens. Because for most teams wins like these are rare.
But Alabama’s standard of excellence is dominance and make no mistake, they didn’t dominate on Saturday afternoon in Gainesville.
Even without back up quarterback Anthony Richardson on the field at all, which feels strange, doesn’t it?, Florida outgained Alabama by over 100 yards on offense. The Gators ran the ball 43 times for 245 yards compared to Alabama’s 28 rushes for 91 yards. The Gators had seven more first downs and averaged more yards per play than the Tide. Alabama looked downright mortal in this game, as Florida controlled the line of scrimmage.
Now the practical result is Alabama got the win and has two weeks, effectively, to get ready for the Lane Train to roll into Tuscaloosa. And, I know, this may well be Alabama’s toughest road game on the season given that Haynes King is likely out for Texas A&M — the Tide goes to A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn the rest of the way. But in the meantime, maybe, just maybe, some of those Alabama opponents in the SEC West have a glimmer of hope that the Tide are beatable this year.
2. Georgia cruised against South Carolina.
The Bulldog defense gave up their first touchdown of the season but, as expected, Georgia had no real challenge from South Carolina.
The biggest result of the night for Georgia, honestly, might well have been Florida’s performance against Alabama. The Cocktail Party is always a massive game in the SEC East, but maybe the Bulldogs have a bit more work in the division than we all believed.
In the meantime, given Alabama’s struggles in the second half, you can make an argument Georgia is the best team in college football right now and should be ranked number one overall. But, ironically enough, Clemson’s struggles with Georgia Tech led me to leave the Tide at one and keep Georgia slotted in at the second place right now.
I still believe we’re going to see 12-0 Alabama against 12-0 Georgia in the SEC title game in Atlanta, but the results in Gainesville and Clemson’s struggles gave SEC fans of other teams at least a bit of hope that maybe the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs aren’t as much better as everyone else as they looked in week one.
3. UCLA lost last night to Fresno State after most of us had gone to bed.
Pac 12 after dark gonna Pac 12 after dark, y’all.
This is significant because combined with BYU’s win over Arizona State, which we’ll get to in a moment, it means the Pac 12 is down to just one undefeated team in the conference — Oregon.
This means either a one loss Pac 12 team has to run the table now, which I don’t think anyone believes will happen given the yearly zaniness in the conference, or the Pac 12 is down to one potential playoff team before September is over — the Ducks.
Indeed, one of the big stories, at least so far on the season, is does anyone in college football really look that great right now? All of the top teams have given us pause when it comes to their potential playoff status.
But the Pac 12 is in dire playoff straits with the UCLA loss late last night.
4. Penn State’s a playoff contender, especially with Ohio State continuing to look mediocre.
Last night’s win over Auburn was massive for James Franklin and Penn State. Remember last year they started 0-5 and then won four straight to finish the season. Combining that with the three straight wins to start this season, Penn State has won seven in a row now and six of those wins are against power five opponents.
With the Auburn win in the bank, Penn State gets Villanova for a breather next week and then Indiana comes to Happy Valley, with the Nittany Lions seeking revenge for last year’s tough opening week loss. So 5-0 feels pretty likely here. But then you’ve still got road games at Iowa — and you can make an argument the Hawkeyes have been the Big Ten’s best team so far — followed by a road game at Ohio State, which may well decide the Big Ten East title.
I still think you have to make Ohio State the favorite to win the Big Ten East because the Buckeye conference schedule is so much easier than the other contenders, but, goodness, Toledo put up 501 yards on this Buckeye defense yesterday. Including 428 yards passing.
Ohio State’s too talented to be this bad on defense and even if they are this bad on defense right now they are likely to get better as the season progresses. Primarily because they can’t get worse. Plus, listen to this Buckeye road schedule in the conference this year: Rutgers, Indiana, Nebraska, and, Michigan. We all know that Michigan trips all over itself by the end of the year for the Buckeye game so with Penn State coming to Columbus, it feels like that game will probably decide the Big Ten East. Especially since Penn State has the much more difficult game at Iowa too. If you’re a Wolverine believer, Michigan has to play at Michigan State, who has been one of the biggest surprises of the year so far and at Wisconsin and at Penn State. Put simply, the Big Ten scheduling gods have vastly favored Ohio State relative to their Big Ten East brethren so I think you have to make the Buckeyes a decent favorite here, even with this disastrous defense.
If you’re an Auburn fan, I think you have to be pretty impressed with the first three games of the season. You dominated two inferior teams and effectively played Penn State even — minus a bad turnover at the start of the second half — on a wild night in Happy Valley. In fact, Auburn was the better team on the line of scrimmage for most of the night, posting 182 yards on forty rushes compared to Penn State’s 33 runs for 84 yards.
Now if you can just explain what in the world play call that was on fourth down. A fade against Penn State’s best corner? And why would you take a timeout before you ran that play to give you no time left when you got the ball back? If anything, I’d want Bo Nix outside the pocket with a run pass option in that scenario. Nix’s strength has never been his touch in the passing game. And that fade in that scenario required near perfect accuracy to work.
Leaving aside that disastrous play call, I’m not saying Auburn’s going to contend in the SEC West, but this felt like a solid 8-4 caliber team. We all know wild things happen in the Iron Bowl and I think that’s what it would take for Auburn to beat Alabama this year, but based on what I saw against Penn State it wouldn’t shock me if Auburn is good enough to beat LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, or Texas A&M. In fact, the battle for who the second best team in the SEC West is looks to be pretty wide open at this point. Right now I’d pick Arkansas or Ole Miss as the second best team, but Texas A&M is in the mix as well.
Final thought: boy, it was a rough night for SEC officials in Happy Valley. It’s been a long time since I saw an officiating crew FORGET WHAT DOWN IT WAS.
Penn State got screwed out of a down. Yes, a down. Refs made them punt on third down. Asked about it as he went in for the half, James Franklin’s reaction is perfect. pic.twitter.com/rAOic7VlCH
5. Clemson has no offense and increasingly looks like a playoff pretender, especially in a woebegone ACC.
Georgia Tech outgained Clemson on the road Saturday and the Tigers withstood a final drive to escape with a win.
But even with the win this Clemson offense is broken.
Maybe it can get fixed before the season is over, but right now the Tigers don’t look like a playoff contender, especially given how bad the ACC is. There isn’t a single top 25 team left on this Tiger schedule right now. What win will the Tigers have at the end of the year to impress the playoff committee? I just don’t see it. (I also don’t think Clemson will run the table even in the awful ACC based on what we’ve seen the first three weeks of the season, someone in the ACC will knock them off.)
Clemson can certainly improve from here, but right now I don’t see them as a legitimate title contender — or maybe even a playoff contender — because of their offense.
6. Oklahoma’s just okay and the Nebraska loss was probably Scott Frost’s most impressive performance so far.
For two years now we’ve all expected for Spencer Rattler to take the helm of the Oklahoma offense and join the lineage of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts as dominant signal callers in Lincoln Riley’s offense.
But so far, it just hasn’t happened.
And at this point I’m starting to question whether it’s ever going to happen.
Yesterday Rattler threw for a pedestrian 214 yards and one touchdown. Truth be told, he wasn’t as good as Adrian Martinez, who went 19 for 25 for 289 yards.
The two teams were relatively even in total yardage and if you’re a Nebraska fan this is probably the most impressive performance, considering the quality of the opponent, your team has put up in the Scott Frost era so far.
But where does this leave us with Oklahoma, the team that entered yesterday’s games with high expectations?
Yes, the Sooners are 3-0, but neither the performance against Tulane — Ole Miss beat them by forty while OU squeaked by with a margin of five — or the performance against Nebraska — Oklahoma beat Nebraska by a smaller margin than Illinois — suggests Oklahoma is a title contender this year.
Especially since the Big 12 has a bevy of unbeaten teams. Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and TCU are all undefeated. Iowa State, Texas, and West Virginia all have one loss. Only Kansas, as usual, is bad. Indeed of all the big conferences in the country right now, the Big 12 might be the most completely wide open. And unlike in the past several years it really doesn’t feel like Oklahoma is head and shoulders above everyone else. This feels like the kind of year where the eventual Big 12 champion has a couple of losses and plays itself out of playoff contention in the process.
At least so far, Oklahoma doesn’t look like a playoff team to me.
7. As a result of some of the mediocrity in the power five conferences so far this year, could BYU be a playoff contender?
I think the answer’s yes.
In the wake of the win over Arizona State, BYU now has three Pac 12 wins — Arizona, Utah, and Arizona State.
Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and USC are all still on the schedule.
If BYU won all of these games, they’d be 7-0 against the Power 5.
Toss in Boise State, Utah State and South Florida and does the BYU schedule really look that much different than many other power five conference teams that would be considered for a playoff berth? I don’t think so.
Now, again, I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but right now I’ve got BYU in my top ten thanks to their three Pac 12 wins.
So what if the eventual Pac 12 champ has two losses and BYU goes 5-0 against the conference? I’m just saying, I think you’d have to consider BYU. Their schedule is way tougher than most non-power five conference schools and I think the Big 12, the ACC, and the Pac 12 may not have a dominant playoff contender this year.
(Cincinnati Bearcat fans have been blitzing me asking why I’m not ranking or talking about them and the answer, at least so far, is because the wins just aren’t there. Yes, the Bearcats are 3-0, but I need to see you guys beat Notre Dame in two weeks. Pull that off and we’ll start to talk about what an undefeated Cincinnati team is capable of at the end of the year.)
8. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because of what I get to do for a living.
If you’d told me when I was a kid watching Steve Spurrier’s teams on television that one day I’d be on a bus tour all over the SEC and be interviewing Spurrier as part of a pregame show with millions of college football fans watching, I would have never believed you.
Heck, if you’d told me this in college or law school, I don’t think I would have believed you.
But this is really what I do for a living. It’s amazing and I try to spend a moment every day reminding myself of how incredible this experience is.
Thanks to everyone we met in Gainesville.
And for those of you reading this right now, here’s an early preview for the next three weeks of the Outkick bus tour: we’re in Nashville for Georgia-Vandy this weekend and then headed to Tuscaloosa for Ole Miss-Alabama and then to Aggieland for Alabama-Texas A&M.
We should have fantastic locations for each of the next three weeks so I look forward to meeting many of you.
I can’t wait.
9. The SEC can’t blow this call in the Mississippi State-Memphis game.
— Ralph Wiggum (@RalphWStats) September 18, 2021
The entire point of having instant replay review is to ensure that a play like this, which ends up deciding the game, never happens.
Combining this with the Auburn-Penn State game and it was a really rough weekend for the officials. Thankfully at least the errors in the Auburn-Penn State game didn’t change the outcome, in Mississippi State-Memphis you can argue the outcome flipped on this officiating error.
The only good thing for the SEC here, is this error in Memphis’s favor helps to kill the argument that SEC errors always work in the SEC’s favor in non-conference games.
10. Here’s the Outkick Top Ten
(Remember that I only rank teams based on what’s happened on the field, not on what I expected to see before the season started. In so ranking, I reward power five conference wins, road and neutral site victories, and dominance of performance.)
3. Penn State
8. Michigan State
9. Ole Miss
11. SEC power rankings 1-14
(These rankings are also based entirely on what’s happened on the field, not on what I expected to see.)
4. Ole Miss
7. Texas A&M
10. South Carolina
11. Mississippi State
I look forward to seeing many of you in Nashville this weekend for the Georgia-Vandy game.