Saturday was North Carolina’s first game as a top-five team in the Associated Press poll since 1997. Back in November of 1997, Florida State earned a 20-3 victory, dealing the Tar Heels their last loss in Brown’s first tenure in Chapel Hill. Less than a month later, he was off to Texas.
Brown figures to be with the Tar Heels (3-1, 3-1 ACC) a while longer than that this time around, and this loss to the Seminoles (2-3, 1-3) figures to be plenty instructive and equally painful even if the matchup did not feel quite as colossal as the one 23 years ago. Credit a good chunk of that to Florida State’s shaky play early this season.
Some of that is coaching flux (Mike Norvell is the team’s third full-time head coach in four seasons), some of it quarterback instability, a bunch of it is the Seminoles’ perpetual offensive line problems. But one way to bypass those problems is to block a couple punts and return an interception for a touchdown, which Florida State did en route to a 31-7 lead at the break.
What North Carolina simultaneously illustrated in the second half is why it isn’t quite really at a top-five level yet and also why it shouldn’t be undersold, either. The Tar Heels shut out Florida State in the final 30 minutes (a couple missed field goals helped), and quarterback Sam Howell finished with 374 yards and three touchdowns to counter the pick-six.
But North Carolina was also plagued with dropped passes, and it couldn’t bottle up the Seminoles’ rushing attack (6.7 yards a rush) for swaths of the evening. There’s a lot to improve.
But in an ACC in which Clemson still occupies its own tier and No. 4 Notre Dame is a shiny one-season squatter, somebody has to emerge as a longer-term counterweight. Saturday showed North Carolina isn’t ready just yet to be that team. And maybe, like the 1990s, the Tar Heels won’t be better than the league’s second banana. Despite a disappointing outcome, they’re certainly worth keeping an eye on moving forward.
Clemson. So much for the idea the No. 1 Tigers might be in for a so-so showing a week after blitzing Miami. It’s true Clemson seems to have one of them every year, sometimes losing (Pittsburgh in 2016, Syracuse in 2017) and sometimes winning (Syracuse in 2018 and North Carolina in 2019), but it sure didn’t have one against Georgia Tech.
The Tigers rolled to a 73-7 victory in Atlanta, scoring their most points in a road game since 1915 and posting the most lopsided margin in a league game in ACC history. It also matched the ACC record for biggest rout of an FBS team; North Carolina (2012) and Florida State (2013) both crushed Idaho by 66 within the last decade.
Oh, and there were high jinks. Defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney (listed at 6-1 and 300 pounds) scored on a 1-yard fullback plunge to make it 31-7. He was one of nine Tigers to score on the day. Punter Will Spiers was the No. 4 quarterback and threw three passes, which matched the number of times he was needed at his usual position.
Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence shrugged off his first interception in almost exactly a year by throwing for five touchdowns and dropping an area code worth of yardage on Georgia Tech, which did not escape Clemson’s social media team.
In short, the Tigers (5-0, 4-0 ACC) couldn’t have done much better on a day when it would have been understandable to be a bit off. That’s a tough bit of luck for the Yellow Jackets (2-3, 2-2), who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Alabama. It was quite the day for the No. 2 Crimson Tide (4-0, 4-0 SEC), which got coach Nick Saban back from a false positive for covid-19, trailed No. 3 Georgia for much of the second quarter and then simply throttled the Bulldogs in the second half to claim a 41-24 victory and emerge as the SEC’s last undefeated team.
Mac Jones threw for 417 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, helping Alabama score the game’s final 24 points and help Saban improve to 22-0 lifetime against his former assistant coaches.
Liberty. The Flames upended an ACC opponent for the first time, throttling shorthanded Syracuse 38-21 in the Carrier Dome in a reversal of last year’s season opener.
That game is probably best remembered for Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, in his first game on the job, working from a hospital bed in the press box level. But the Flames lost 24-0 and rushed for -4 yards that day.
Things were different in the return game. Liberty (5-0) piled up 338 rushing yards and trailed a total of 18 seconds as it reached the midpoint of its season without a loss. The Flames get two more shots at ACC schools: Virginia Tech on Nov. 7, and N.C. State on Nov. 21.
Grant Morgan. The Arkansas linebacker turned in one of the best individual defensive performances of the season, making 19 tackles (three for loss), collecting a sack and returning a fourth-quarter interception for a game-sealing touchdown as the Razorbacks (2-2, 2-2 SEC) won their first conference home game since 2016 and defeated Mississippi 33-21.
It’s yet another fine showing for Arkansas in coach Sam Pittman’s first season. The Razorbacks have swept the SEC’s Mississippi schools and almost knocked off Auburn last week and are arguably the most improved team in the three Power Five conference that are underway (though 4-1 N.C. State certainly has a claim to that honor as well).
Memphis. The Tigers have done a lot over the last several years. Now, they have a 21st century defeat of Central Florida to celebrate.
Of course, given the tenor of the series, it wasn’t going to be achieved in boring fashion.
Central Florida had won 13 meetings in a row dating back to 2005. The last three came by scores of 62-55 (2017 American Athletic title game), 31-30 (2018) and 56-41 (2018 AAC title game).
So Memphis’ 50-49 victory fits in quite nicely — from the 1,501 combined total yards (breaking the AAC record set by, you guessed it, Memphis and Central Florida) to the rally from a 12-point deficit in the final four minutes to take the lead to UCF nearly coming back itself before Daniel Obarski’s 40-yard field goal attempt slid to the left with 19 seconds remaining.
It might be a bit early to call it an AAC eliminator, though Memphis (2-1, 1-1) is in better shape in the league than the Knights (2-2, 1-2). Brady White threw for 486 yards and six touchdowns in the victory, while Central Florida’s Dillon Gabriel was 35 of 49 for 601 yards and five touchdowns.
Texas A&M. It wasn’t just a day to see how teams coming off their first loss (see: Miami and Tennessee) responded. It was a good chance to gauge how the No. 11 Aggies, who toppled Florida for what feels like their most meaningful victory to date under Jimbo Fisher, would manage success.
A workmanlike 28-14 victory at Mississippi State is a fine result. No, the Aggies (3-1, 3-1 SEC) didn’t have a dominant offensive showing, but tailback Isaiah Spiller was plenty effective (18 carries, 114 yards, two touchdowns), but their defense was exceptional. It took the field for 10 possessions, forcing seven punts and collecting a pair of takeaways. That will work.
Miami. A week after falling at Clemson, the No. 13 Hurricanes weren’t at their best on offense but still never trailed in a 31-19 victory over Pittsburgh. D’Eriq King wasn’t perfect (16 of 31, 222 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions), but there was enough good in there to complement a Miami defense that allowed just 300 total yards (including 22 yards on 26 carries).
In a lot of ways, it was the sort of slugfest the Hurricanes (4-1, 3-1 ACC) and Panthers (3-3, 2-3) would have been expected to play even if both weren’t coming off losses and Pitt had the services of quarterback Kenny Pickett (he was out with an ankle injury). In that sense, it’s a good sign for Miami, since it didn’t let a bad game bleed into a second — a definite improvement over last season.
Kentucky. The Wildcats (2-2, 2-2 SEC) crushed No. 18 Tennessee 34-7, in the process winning in Knoxville for the first time since 1984. Kentucky was methodical on the ground (4.2 yards a carry), mistake-free if not explosive in the air (13 of 16 for 107 yards) and opportunistic on defense (four forced turnovers).
Mark Stoops’ offense hasn’t been statistically prolific over the last two weeks, piling up 451 yards and 28 first downs total. But the Wildcats have smothered Mississippi State and Tennessee by a combined 58-9 margin, and have climbed out of an 0-2 hole in the process. A trip to Missouri is up next.
Nelson Smith. The Navy senior began last season as the Midshipmen’s starting fullback before Jamale Carothers seized the job by late October. Smith remains part of a tandem with Carothers, and he’s proved especially valuable the last two games.
A week after rushing for a career-high 120 yards and two scores against Temple, Smith was even better in Navy’s 27-23 victory at East Carolina.
He took his first carry 20 yards for a score and made his last touch count when he squeezed out a 2-yard gain to convert a fourth down that allowed Navy to burn off all but the final 22 seconds. For the day, he managed another career-high in yards (157) and scored twice as Navy (3-2, 3-0) remained unbeaten in American play.
Georgia. Sure, the Bulldogs fell 41-24 at Alabama, but the real loser may be just about everyone else in the country not named Clemson. After all, if Georgia’s stout defense gave up 564 yards to the Crimson Tide, who else has a realistic chance at slowing down Alabama when it is anywhere near its best?
Tennessee. Woof. The Volunteers (2-2, 2-2 SEC) couldn’t have done much more to hand Kentucky a victory, at least on offense. In a span of 10 plays from scrimmage early in the second quarter, Tennessee threw three interceptions. Two were returned for touchdowns, and the third set up a Kentucky field goal. The Wildcats were well on their way to a 34-7 victory.
While the second half of last week’s loss to Georgia wasn’t pleasant, there was a good chance more would be learned about the Vols in this game. It wasn’t good, and now Tennessee gets to limp into its game against Alabama on a two-game slide. Good luck with that.
Auburn. South Carolina warrants credit for having dug itself out its 0-2 hole, first by thrashing Vanderbilt and then by turning back Auburn 30-22.
The No. 15 Tigers, though, deserve plenty of credit for their own demise.
Quarterback Bo Nix threw three interceptions, each setting up the Gamecocks on Auburn’s side of the field. And South Carolina cashed in all three of them for touchdowns, including Kevin Harris’ 8-yard run late in the third quarter a play after the last of Nix’s picks.
Auburn (2-2, 2-2 SEC) is fortunate not to be on a three-game skid at the moment. It was overwhelmed by Georgia, and survived Arkansas last week thanks in part to an officiating miscue. The Tigers didn’t enjoy such good fortune in Columbia, and their chances of making a run in the SEC West took a big hit as a result.
Mississippi State. Another week, another underwhelming showing for Mike Leach’s offense. The Bulldogs (1-3, 1-3 SEC) managed to get in the end zone against Texas A&M after posting only a safety in last week’s loss to Kentucky.
Still, it took Mississippi State until the fourth quarter for its offense to produce any points against the Aggies (Emmanuel Forbes’ interception return early in the third quarter accounted for the Bulldogs’ first points). With 217 total yards, Mississippi State quietly lost for the third week in a row; this don’t get any easier with a trip to Alabama looming on Halloween after an open date.