Another Saturday of college football is in the books, and while there weren’t as many “marquee” games, on paper it feels like we might have learned about the sport across the board than we have at any point this season. Some teams we thought were good stunk, some teams that we’d brushed off suddenly feel relevant and some teams that we thought were good, might actually be better.
So what did we learn Saturday? Here are five things:
1) Clemson is the best team in college football right now — frankly I don’t think it’s even debatable
When the new AP Top 25 poll comes out, Alabama will once again be No. 1, since, well, pollsters don’t actually vote on teams based on what they’ve accomplished on the field, but instead a bunch of other ancillary things (where they started in the preseason, where they were the week before, stuff like that). But if those voters were doing what they were supposed to be doing — voting on teams ranked on who’s the “best” — Clemson would be a unanimous No. 1. Frankly, I don’t think it’s debatable.
For starters, what Clemson has done so far this season outweighs anything anyone else has done, as it beat a good Auburn team at home before turning a highly touted matchup with Louisville into a laugher by the start of the fourth quarter. No team in college football has anything close to two wins that good (although you could argue USC is close).
But it’s not just about what Clemson has done on the field, but how it has done it. The Tigers defense, which finished ranked eighth nationally last season, is somehow better in 2017 and proved it once again Saturday. There it bottled up Lamar Jackson; he had just 64 yards rushing and his 317-yard passing total is deceptive, since so many of those yards came late when the game was clearly over.
In the process, the Tigers held a club that had averaged over 40 points a game to just seven points through three quarters, before Louisville piled things on late. The defensive line was once again phenomenal with seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Offensively, Kelly Bryant is starting to get his sea legs with a career-high 316 yards passing. He seemingly gets better every week.
Keep in mind also that Clemson dominated a ranked team on the road, while Alabama once again looked good — but not great — in a 41-23 win over Colorado State. The Crimson Tide are still a damn good team, but one with questions, including depth on defense after a slew of injuries have taken their toll early.
We’ll find out a lot about Alabama next week when it travels to Vanderbilt (more on that coming) but right now, the Tigers are deserving of this ranking.
2) Tom Herman is the coach Texas has been waiting for
College football fans are a funny bunch, and when Texas was beaten by Maryland to open the season, the reaction from across the country was typical. Most of it revolved around Texas again being overrated and Tom Herman not being the coach everyone made him out to be. Few considered that Maryland might actually be a good team (it is) or that it takes time to change a culture.
But if we learned anything Saturday, it’s that it might not take as long as we think in Austin. We also learned — as I told you in the preseason — Herman is unquestionably the right man for the Texas job.
By now everyone knows that the Longhorns lost a heartbreaker in double-overtime at USC, but much like Clemson and Louisville, it’s not so much that the Longhorns lost, but how it happened. They played one of the most talented teams in college football and went toe-to-toe, play-for-play with them, and were every bit the Trojans’ equals on the field.
A week after USC put up over 600 yards of offense against Stanford, the Trojans were held to a respectable 468, numbers that were somewhat padded by two overtimes. The Longhorns defense was especially good on the ground, holding USC to just 1.9 yards per rush, this after the Trojans had nearly 6.4 yards per rush on the ground against Stanford.
Ultimately, Texas has always had the talent, but it’s becoming more clear the Longhorns now have the coach, too. To see the turnaround in just two weeks from the Maryland game was stunning, but also proof that things are going in the right direction. Texas is probably still a year or two away from competing for Big 12 titles, but it’s not nearly as far as most people think.
3) Butch Jones just is who he is; the question now is: Will Tennessee’s administration accept it?
Look, everyone knows Tennessee’s loss to Florida — on a last-second Hail Mary — was devastating, but if we’re being totally honest, the game should have never come down to that one play. Tennessee was the better team on Saturday (outgaining Florida 442 to 380) and had about a million chances to win it, but — like it always does under Butch Jones — found a way to lose to it.
The Vols had three missed field goals (not all Jones’ fault, but special teams are a huge part of this game) and an apocalyptic drive in the third quarter where they had first-and-goal on the 1 but eventually threw an interception and got no points, in what I described as the “worst goal series on the goal line in the history of college football.” Not to mention that the last play — while incredible from Florida’s perspective — was a comedy of errors for Tennessee.
Why didn’t the Vols have all their defensive backs deep? Why didn’t — once their corner got beat deep — he commit a penalty, which would have at least impeded the touchdown and forced Florida to make one more play? Why? Why? Why?
Basically, this was the quintessential Butch Jones game: The Vols had all the talent to win, but somehow found a way to lose. And now it raises a question for new UT athletic director John Currie: How much longer can you put up with this?
Look, Jones needs to be given credit for taking a ravaged program and building it back up. After the disastrous Phillip Fulmer firing, followed by the Kiffin/Dooley eras, this program just needed stability and needed a foundation to be built, which Jones has provided. But there’s a difference between “building a foundation” and “taking that foundation to the next level,” and clearly Jones isn’t that guy.
So now the question becomes: How long do the Vols wait? Other teams in the SEC are improving around them (South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, etc.) and the ones that aren’t, could be looking for new coaches this offseason (Texas A&M, Auburn and maybe even Missouri). Plus, it’s not like there aren’t quality coaches on the market; not only is Chip Kelly available, but Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, Memphis’ Mike Norvell and UCF’s Scott Frost are all rising stars.
Point being, the Vols are going to have some tough questions to ask this offseason, if not sooner. The most important question is this: Is being “good” ultimately good enough?
4) While Tennessee is floundering, how about Vandy and Kentucky?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that while Tennessee and Florida (yes, Gators fans, your team was terrible on Saturday) were abysmal Saturday, Vanderbilt and Kentucky both improved to 3-0 with impressive wins. And I’ve got to admit, I’m starting to wonder: Do we really live in a world where the Wildcats and Commodores are more serious SEC East title threats than the Gators and Vols? I’m starting to think so, and if that’s the case, well I must say: What a time to be alive!
The simple truth is that Vandy might just be the best team in college football that no one is talking about. They currently have the No. 1-ranked scoring defense in college football, giving up a minuscule 4.3 points per game, and held a K-State team that averaged 55 points in its first two games to just seven on Saturday. Kentucky, meanwhile, improved to 3-0 with a victory over South Carolina, a club that the Wildcats have now beaten four times in a row.
Ultimately, it’s still too early to name either of these teams an SEC East contender, since Georgia is still the overwhelming favorite in the division. But both clubs are vastly improved and trending in the right direction. Neither has an easy game this week (Vandy hosts Alabama and Kentucky hosts Florida), but things are looking up in Nashville and Lexington.
5) As it turns out Texas A&M-UCLA was a fun game — that ultimately meant nothing
As I watched UCLA’s defense put up one of the most meager efforts in modern college football history on Saturday against Memphis (a slight exaggeration, but not by much), I couldn’t help but realize one thing: UCLA-Texas A&M of 2017 is an exact replica of the 2016 Notre Dame-Texas game. Each was a wildly entertaining game, but as it turns out, told us nothing about the big picture of the sport. Remember, after a game that we thought was “paradigm-shifting” last year, Texas finished 5-7 and Notre Dame 4-8. It probably won’t be quite that bad for the Aggies or the Bruins. But it probably won’t be much better either.
Since that wild 45-44 thriller at the Rose Bowl, Texas A&M has struggled with Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette; the Aggies actually trailed 21-14 against the Rajun Cajuns on Saturday. Meanwhile, UCLA lost to Memphis in the Liberty Bowl, and as many astute fans pointed out, the only difference between the Memphis game and the A&M game for the Bruins was that the Tigers made the interceptions that the Aggies could not.
And sadly, it doesn’t appear as things will get much better for either team. Texas A&M now enters a manageable SEC West, where outside of Alabama and Mississippi State, no one looks unstoppable — but the Aggies haven’t exactly inspired anyone to believe that they’ll beat teams such as LSU, Auburn or Ole Miss, either. Meanwhile, UCLA’s offense will allow the Bruins to play with anyone in the Pac-12, but their defense makes them susceptible to losses to any of those teams as well. That starts with Stanford, which is now 6-0 against the Bruins since Jim Mora became UCLA’s head coach in 2012.
In the end, we’ll always have our memories from that Sunday night at the Rose Bowl, even if it’s been ugly for both teams ever since.
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