Starting 11: The Big Ten Is Back Edition

The Starting 11 is a day late, arriving on Monday morning as opposed to our usual Sunday morning, because I went to my first college football game this season up in Knoxville and was driving back to town early on Sunday morning.

This is the third NFL or college football game I’ve attended, and it felt simultaneously odd and completely normal. The entrance and exit from Neyland Stadium was smooth, the crowd, by and large, was socially distanced, and I didn’t feel endangered in any way.

I sat in the regular seats, not a suite, and I appreciate everyone who came to our OutKick tailgate and all the Tennessee and Alabama fans who said hi to me this weekend. It feels like OutKick has nearly 100% name recognition with everyone at Neyland Stadium under fifty years old.

Every year, going to college football games on SEC campuses is kind of a rough metaphor for the growth of the OutKick brand, and every year it just becomes bigger and bigger.

For a guy with zero readers who started writing about college football in a law firm office in the Virgin Islands back in 2005, that’s an incredible story.

Thanks to all who said hi and thanks for all the well wishes.

Okay, let’s roll with the Starting 11.

1. No one is stopping the Alabama offense.

It was tough to see Jaylen Waddle seriously injured on the first play of the game, but the Alabama offense didn’t miss a beat in slicing and dicing up Tennessee’s overmatched defense.

Alabama has now scored 242 points on the season. That’s an average of 48.4 points per game. No one else in the SEC is even close to this kind of offensive dominance.

The result is Alabama has outscored opponents by over 110 points on the season.

The only other SEC West team to outscore opponents this fall so far is LSU, and that’s primarily because LSU got to play against Vanderbilt.

My point here? Mac Jones is having a Joe Burrow-like season so far, and he’s pretty much cemented himself as a Heisman finalist.

Given that Alabama has Mississippi State this coming weekend followed by a bye week before they play at LSU, Kentucky, Auburn, and at Arkansas, it’s nearly impossible to see the Tide losing a game down the stretch, so long as Mac Jones remains healthy.

If Alabama is 10-0 with ten SEC wins by double digits — which I think is likely — then what happens in the SEC title game, presumably against Florida or Georgia, won’t matter at all.

In fact, the best result for the SEC would probably be Florida or Georgia pulling off an upset in the SEC title game because it would give the SEC an outstanding chance to have two teams in the playoff.

As for Tennessee, Arkansas in two weeks is now a “circle the wagons” game for Jeremy Pruitt’s team. The losses to Georgia and Alabama aren’t debilitating, but getting whipped at home by a bad Kentucky team looks even worse after the Wildcat performance against Missouri.

With two weeks to prepare, Tennessee has to win at Arkansas.

Period.

Win that game, and they’re sitting at 3-3 with a final four of Texas A&M, at Auburn, at Vanderbilt and Florida.

Even with a win at Arkansas, Tennessee will have to upset someone to finish 5-5. That’s why the Kentucky loss, to me, remains the worse of the Pruitt era with the Vols.

Yes, even worse than Georgia State.

2. Clemson was mediocre against Syracuse, but no one is going to come within two touchdowns of them in the ACC.

This morning on OutKick, Joel Klatt and I discussed the talent gap between college football’s top four most-talented teams and everyone else.

It’s pretty stark.

Consider the number of five star players on the rosters of Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson.

Georgia: 16
Ohio State: 14
Alabama: 12
Clemson: 11

The Big 12 conference has 11 total five stars across all ten teams. (Oklahoma and Texas have nine).

The drop off here is pretty incredible.

How about total five stars by conference?

SEC: 54
Big Ten: 20
ACC: 15
Pac 12: 13
Big 12: 11

Even if you remove Alabama and Georgia from the equation, the SEC still has 26 five stars on the other 12 teams, which is still more than twice as much talent as the Pac 12 and the Big 12 have combined.

Sure, you can argue that recruiting rankings don’t matter, but everyone who has won a title in the college football playoff era has been absolutely stacked with talent and so have most of the teams that have made the playoffs overall. In fact, recruiting class rankings are mattering more than ever in the playoff era because you have to win two games against elite talent with each team having multiple weeks to prepare for these contests.

I’m actually curious whether name/image/likeness might spread the talent out more, but for right now you’ve got a system with the haves and the have nots when it comes to college football talent.

And the 2021 recruiting class rankings are more of the same.

The top schools for five stars?

Alabama has five five stars committed, Ohio State has four, and Georgia has two five stars. (Clemson has one. So far).

My point? In the playoff era, top recruits are flocking even more to the top programs than they did before the playoffs started, creating even more of a disparity in overall talent.

Why is that?

I suspect it’s because the focus on the playoff means many recruits only look at the teams in the playoff.

When only two teams played for the title, there was less focus on the title game itself and more focus on the other games. But with four teams in the playoff every year, a playoff run acts as a major advertisement for top talent.

How do you break through and become one of these playoff teams? Two ways: you either hire a stud head coach, a Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, who brings in top talent or you breakthrough like Dabo Swinney did, with an elite quarterback in Deshaun Watson who makes your program cool for everyone else.

3. Ohio State made its debut and looked like a playoff team.

Justin Fields was nearly perfect passing the football — going 20 for 21 for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for another touchdown.

Meanwhile Nebraska, which was tied with Ohio State 14-14 with 8:24 to play, was outscored 38-3 over the remainder of the game. (I know, I know, the targeting calls were awful, Cornhusker fans.)

Ordinarily you’d say the Buckeyes might slip up on the road, but given there are going to be no fans present in any of the games, what difference does it make to Ohio State if they are playing Penn State at night in Columbus or at night in Happy Valley?

The biggest issue going forward for Ohio State, and everyone else in the Big Ten as well, is the lack of a safety net in the Big Ten season.

Given the insane 21-day protocol in place in the event of a positive test and the lack of additional weeks to make up games, it’s virtually certain some games will be canceled. Not postponed, canceled.

So what happens if, for instance, Ohio State only plays five regular season games? How would the committee consider 6-0 Big Ten champ Ohio State compared to an 10-1 Oklahoma State Big 12 champ?

There’s really no precedent for this.

By making the decision to come back this late without any means to reschedule canceled games, the Big Ten has put its teams in an incredibly difficult spot.

The SEC, Big 12 and ACC were able to start in a way that provided substantial scheduling flexibility for their teams. As a result, those conferences are likely to be able to crown a champion without controversy.

Will the Big Ten be able to do the same?

We’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, Ohio State may face more danger from COVID canceling games than they do from their Big Ten opponents.

4. Indiana finally won a big game in conference under Tom Allen.

Yes, it took poor late-game decision making by Penn State — don’t score there! And it also took an unbelievable final play on the two-point conversion for the win, but this kind of scene in a locker room after a win is exactly what the coronabros in sports media were trying to prevent from happening by attempting to block the season with their fear-porn laden articles.

The biggest result here is Penn State, which outgained Indiana 488 to 211 yards and held the Hoosiers to just 41 yards rushing on 26 carries, now has to beat Ohio State this weekend to remain in the running for the Big Ten East title.

Penn State lost despite outgaining Indiana in total yardage by 277 yards. That was more than Wisconsin outgained Illinois — 212 yards — Ohio State outgained Nebraska — 121 yards — or Michigan outgained Minnesota — 152 yards. Yet all three of these Big Ten teams win by 25 or more points, and Penn State lost.

Penn State was more dominant in total yardage, in fact, than every winning team in the Big Ten conference and nearly every winning team in major college football this weekend.

I bring that up because those numbers would suggest there may be some value on Penn State +12.5 against Ohio State this weekend.

But in the meantime, Penn State has a ton to clean up in order to run with the Buckeyes.

5. LSU finally looked like LSU.

After a road loss against Missouri two weeks ago, LSU came out of their bye week and absolutely obliterated South Carolina.

Now the big question is this: can LSU beat Auburn this weekend and then get another bye week to prepare for Alabama down on the bayou?

As I said earlier, I don’t think Alabama can be challenged by anyone else left on their schedule, but I do believe LSU has the overall talent to hang with them for a bit. (It’s also possible that Alabama scores 100 points on this Bo Pelini defense as well.)

6. Michigan was dominant on the road at Minnesota.

The Wolverines enjoyed a tough offseason after a 9-4 campaign saw the Wolverines lose their fourth straight bowl game and barely remain in the top 25.

Now the question is this: can Michigan put themselves in position to have a game against Ohio State at the end of the year to advance to the Big Ten title game?

To do so, Michigan needs to traverse a fairly difficult road.

Michigan State this weekend should be the easiest rivalry game Harbaugh has had since arriving in Ann Arbor, but then comes at Indiana, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Michigan needs to go 2-1 in these three to be in position to make the Ohio State game decide the Big Ten East.

Given that the game will be in Columbus with no fans present, home and away doesn’t really matter this year, so maybe Michigan has a chance to reverse the curse here.

2020 has been wild. The wildest thing of all might be Jim Harbaugh finally beating Ohio State after six straight losses in the series.

7. Wisconsin, the only ranked team in the Big Ten West, debuted a freshman quarterback stud, Graham Mertz, but now they have to worry whether he’s going to be able to play over the next three weeks.

Mertz, who went 20 of 21 for five touchdowns in his debut, has reportedly tested positive for COVID.

At the time I’m writing this on Monday morning, if that COVID test is confirmed as a positive, it would mean he has to be out for the next 21 days, which would require him to miss three straight games.

More alarming for Wisconsin is that other players might be required to quarantine alongside him as well, which could create massive issues for the Badger football team’s ability to play at all.

Fingers crossed that this is yet another false positive in sports, but this is evidence of the tightrope that the Big Ten has created for all its teams this fall.

Yes, they finally made the decision to return to play, which was the right decision, but their COVID testing protocols are so stringent that there is virtually no margin for error when it comes to any positive tests by any players.

There is a very high probability that there will be games canceled in the Big Ten, the question is how many of those games will be canceled, and how will it impact a league champion and a potential playoff spot for that champion?

It’s a major issue, for sure.

8. Mizzou whipped Kentucky, demonstrating there is no rhyme or reason to this college football season in the SEC.

A week after Kentucky whipped Tennessee, Missouri, a team Tennessee whipped, crushed Kentucky.

Yes, I know, the scoreboard only showed the final score at 20-10, but Mizzou put up a whopping 421 yards of offense against Kentucky’s 145. Time of possession was even wilder: Mizzou held the ball for 43:10 to Kentucky’s 16:50.

It’s rare for one team to put up nearly 300 more yards of offense in a college football game than their opponent and to simultaneously do it while holding the ball for nearly thirty minutes more than their opponent too.

The result?

The SEC is a complicated mess outside of the top four teams. What’s more, two new coaches who many believed were going to be completely overmatched this fall — and potentially struggle to win multiple games, or any games, at all — have fought their way to early season respectability: Sam Pittman at Arkansas is 2-2 and Eli Drinkwitz at Missouri is also 2-2.

Fans of both programs should be ecstatic.

Meanwhile Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach, the two coaches who received the most attention upon being hired, are a combined 2-7 in the league so far.

Regardless, you have to stay tuned to the SEC because there’s truly no telling what might happen week to week.

We have already seen a ton of upsets, and we are just halfway through the season.

9. Oklahoma State is 4-0, but are Mike Gundy’s Cowboys a playoff contender or not?

We’ll find out in the next three weeks, as the schedule features Texas, at Kansas State, and then at Oklahoma.

If the Cowboys can go 2-1 in these three games, then they’re likely in the Big 12 title game. Win that game, and a 10-1 record in the Big 12 would put Oklahoma State squarely in the playoff picture.

Given all the offseason tumult, that would be an incredible turn of events for Mike Gundy’s squad.

Also, don’t overlook what Kansas State is doing.

Left for dead after an opening season loss to Arkansas State, Kansas State has since run off four straight Big 12 wins.

The Wildcats have a very good chance to find themselves in the title game this year.

10. OutKick’s National Top Ten:

A reminder: I only rank teams that have played, so there are no Pac-12 teams included.

But, thankfully, we can now include Big Ten teams.

1. Alabama
2. Clemson
3. Georgia
4. Ohio State
5. Notre Dame
6. Texas A&M
7. Florida
8. Oklahoma State
9. Wisconsin
10. BYU

11. SEC power rankings 1-14:

I’m going to be honest with you guys, outside of the top four and Vanderbilt in last place, these rankings are almost impossible to complete.

The entire middle of this conference is a complete jumble.

Last week was tough, but this week is even tougher.

Right now, I’ve got Auburn ranked three spots above South Carolina, despite the fact that the Gamecocks just beat Auburn by eight last week. And I’ve got South Carolina above LSU, despite the fact they just got crushed by LSU. And I’ve got Mizzou ranked above Tennessee, despite the fact that Tennessee beat Mizzou by over twenty points. As if that weren’t enough, I’ve also got Tennessee ranked above Kentucky, despite the fact that Kentucky beat Tennessee by more than twenty points.

So what I’m trying to balance out here is best wins and worst wins at this point.

I have Kentucky and LSU ranked below all the other two-loss teams because they lost to Ole Miss and Mississippi State, respectively, two teams that have only one win in the conference.

And I have Arkansas as the highest ranked two-loss team right now because the Razorbacks should have beaten Auburn.

Regardless, I acknowledge these rankings are just an absolute mess, but these are my best efforts:

1. Alabama
2. Georgia
3. Texas A&M
4. Florida
5. Arkansas
6. Auburn
7. Mizzou
8. Tennessee
9. South Carolina
10. Kentucky
11. LSU
12. Ole Miss
13. Mississippi State
14. Vanderbilt

Thanks for reading OutKick, hope you guys had a great weekend.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

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