When Mississippi State steamrolled Louisiana State a couple weeks back, it was clear the gap between the Tigers and SEC contention was considerable in Ed Orgeron’s first full season in charge. When the Tigers survived a rally from Syracuse last Saturday, anxiety grew in the Bayou State since the best way to view the nine-point triumph was assuming the Orange had made considerable progress (it hasn’t) and LSU merely had a hangover from its drubbing seven days earlier (a partially plausible explanation).
And now that Troy has swept through Death Valley and collected both a 24-21 victory and claimed a check for nearly $1 million, it’s time to face an uncomfortable truth: LSU is a stunningly average program at the moment.
That’s no knock on Troy, which poked into the national rankings last season and is one of the top programs again in the Sun Belt under coach Neal Brown. But even the most fervent Trojan fan would probably acknowledge the difference in resources between the two athletic departments.
Les Miles’ run ended around this time last year because the Tigers were piling up three or four losses a year rather than zero or one. The reason for that was erratic quarterback play, even in an offense that asked a string of starters this decade to mostly avoid losing games rather than win them.
The Tigers (3-2) will still probably earn a bowl bid this year; their situation isn’t quite as poor as, say, Texas of three years ago. But success is measured by championships in Baton Rouge, and LSU hasn’t been this far away from earning them since before Nick Saban took over in 2000.
* Bryce Love. Christian Who? Stanford’s offense revolved around Christian McCaffrey the last two years, and the running back finished second in the Heisman voting in 2015 and led the nation in all-purpose yards last year before turning pro. His replacement is Love, who merely uncorked a school-record 301 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries in a 34-24 defeat of Arizona State. This is not a fluke; Love has 1,088 yards (and 11.1 yards a carry) through five games for the Cardinal (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12), including 564 yards over the last two weeks.
Stanford’s early missteps against Southern California and San Diego State will probably cost Love some, well, love in rundowns of early Heisman candidates. Still, he’s a perfect fit for the Cardinal’s rugged offense and could wind up with some gaudy numbers by year’s end.
While not every defense is as vulnerable as Arizona State’s, Love will have the chance to impress against Utah next week and Notre Dame, Washington and Washington State in the final month of the season.
* Georgia. Week after week, it’s the same story for the Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC). They stick to their identity, and they keep winning games.
Georgia smashed Tennessee, 41-0, on the road, all but turning the SEC East into a two-team race with Florida (though Kentucky and South Carolina still have only one league loss). The Bulldogs’ defense suffocated the overmatched Vols, tailback Nick Chubb rushed for 109 yards on 16 carries and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm managed the game.
Great defense, plenty of power rushing and limited miscues from a young quarterback isn’t the most exciting formula, but in Georgia’s capable hands it is probably good enough to beat at least 10 SEC teams this year. The Bulldogs might get the chance to test it against the three other teams before the year is through, Florida and Auburn in the regular season and Alabama in a potential SEC title game.
* Maryland. The Terrapins (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) rediscovered their running game in a 31-24 triumph at Minnesota, winning even though they were forced to start their third quarterback of the season (Max Bortenschlager).
Maryland’s well-trod history, as well as common sense, suggest that a team working with its No. 3 quarterback will have some limitations. The schedule still includes the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. The final two months very well could prove unkind. But the Terps did demonstrate resilience in taking down the Golden Gophers (3-1, 0-1), and that trait at least gives them hope of finding a way to six victories.
*Clemson. The best resume in the land belongs to the defending national champs, who added a 31-17 triumph at Virginia Tech to victories earlier this month at Louisville and against Auburn at home.
With a 5-0 start in hand, the Tigers don’t have many serious challengers standing between them and a 12-0 regular season. Florida State doesn’t look particularly special, and it has to visit Death Valley, anyway. Two other possibilities: Georgia Tech (Oct. 28) and N.C. State (Nov. 4), the latter game on the road. Anyone facing Clemson is going to have to solve an indomitable defense that has allowed 54 points in five games.
* Auburn. Speaking of legitimate defenses, the Tigers silenced Mississippi State, 49-10, as tailback Kerryon Johnson rushed for 116 yards and three touchdowns. Auburn (4-1, 2-0 SEC) hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in a game, and it has positioned itself as the only logical remaining possibility to dethrone Alabama in the SEC West (sorry, Texas A&M).
The Tigers’ offensive issues appear to have sorted themselves out in back-to-back blowouts of Missouri and Mississippi State to open league play. They’ve used the run to set up the pass to great effect, and if Jarrett Stidham can have nights similar to Saturday (13 of 16, 264 yards and two TDs), Auburn is not going to have many problems.
* Central Florida. The Knights (3-0) followed up their thumping of Maryland last week with a 40-13 demolition of previously undefeated Memphis. Central Florida is set up as the best challenger to South Florida in the American’s East Division, McKenzie Milton (three TD passes) is quickly establishing himself as a league player of the year candidate and Scott Frost is going to be a popular name in the coaching rumor mill over the next few months thanks to his work in Orlando.
* Butch Jones. It was obvious by the end of the first quarter there was no reason to keep watching the shellacking Tennessee absorbed against Georgia. The Volunteers weren’t managing anything against the Bulldogs defense, and sure enough Georgia rolled to a 41-0 victory.
Credit Jones for acknowledging the scope of the disaster he presided over, one that saw Tennessee muster 142 yards just a week after barely defeating winless Massachusetts at home.
Jones warrants praise for stabilizing Tennessee after the rocky tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. He stitched together back-to-back 9-4 seasons, though last year was a bit of a disappointment because of stumbles against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Already in 2017, the Vols have lost to Florida on a Hail Mary and now Georgia in ugly fashion.
Saturday felt a bit like Al Golden’s Waterloo at Miami two years ago. The Hurricanes were thumped, 58-0, at home, by Clemson in the seventh game of Golden’s fifth season. This was the fifth game of Jones’s fifth season, and like 2015 Miami, it hits a crossroads after getting skunked on its own field by a top-10 team. Golden was fired the day after Miami’s debacle against Clemson. Jones probably deserves better treatment than that, but those making the decisions at Tennessee have a right to wonder if the Vols have already hit their ceiling under their current coach.
* Florida State’s offensive line. The Seminoles have their first victory of the season, a 26-19 escape at Wake Forest. Freshman QB James Blackman had 31 passing yards through three quarters, but did lead a go-ahead touchdown drive late and connected with Auden Tate for a 40-yard scoring strike.
Blackman might rapidly mature on the job, but it’s also possible his play reflects exactly what he is: a true freshman thrust into a starting role prematurely because of injury. What he needs is steady line play, and he isn’t getting it. Over the last two weeks — a loss to N.C. State and then Saturday’s triumph — Florida State (1-2, 1-1 ACC) has run 129 plays and has yielded 22 tackles for loss and nine sacks. That does not bode well with Miami coming to Tallahassee next Saturday.
* North Carolina. Sometimes, injuries just do you in. Such is life for the Tar Heels (1-4, 0-3 ACC), who must straggle through the season with a diminished offense to complement a defense that has struggled to keep its head above water throughout the Larry Fedora era.
North Carolina mustered 247 total yards in a 33-7 loss at Georgia Tech, and with youth scattered throughout the offense, it appears attention in Chapel Hill will pivot to basketball season even earlier than usual this fall.
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