If Tennessee’s defeat of Florida last month was a measure of progress, this was a breakthrough like a wrecking ball obliterating a brick wall. The Volunteers (6-0, 3-0 SEC), a late 20th century national champion that has since endured nearly a generation of malaise, finished off a spotlight game that delivered from start to finish.
And to think: Alabama committed a school-record 17 penalties, fell behind 28-10 in the first half, couldn’t conjure a way to defend Tennessee wideout Jalin Hyatt (six catches, 207 yards, school-record five touchdowns) … and still had a chance to take the lead in the final 20 seconds.
It could have been a dramatically different finish had Will Reichard’s 50-yard attempt with 15 seconds remaining hooked just a bit more to the left. Against nearly any other opponent, Alabama (6-1, 3-1) would have shuffled off to overtime and taken its chances.
Hendon Hooker had other ideas, completing passes of 18 and 27 yards to set up McGrath’s knuckler that twirled its way over Alabama’s eager field goal block team and a bit more real estate after that. But Hooker was fabulous nearly all day, throwing for 385 yards and five touchdowns and turning in a performance every bit as sharp as defending Heisman winner Bryce Young.
The Alabama quarterback’s shoulder injury seemed like a nonissue as he carved up Tennessee for 455 yards and two scores. This was a variable the Volunteers could never really account for; Alabama’s offense kept churning into the final minute.
And yet — as fearsome as Alabama’s reputation is and as exceptional as Young has proved himself to be over the last two years, this is far from Nick Saban’s best team in Tuscaloosa. Oh, he’s still at his most cantankerous on the sideline. He was a lip-reader’s dream Saturday, from his reaction to a fumbled punt early in the second quarter to his obvious dread when Hooker moved the Vols into field goal range at the end.
But this was already a vulnerable team. Alabama escaped Texas on a late field goal. It managed to halt Texas A&M from the Crimson Tide 2 on the final play of the game last week to preserve a victory. Some of Saban’s best teams went a full year with fewer close calls than this bunch has had in half a season.
None of this is of any relevance to Tennessee. Nor should it be. The Volunteers have performed so many acts of self-immolation over the last 15 years, in both big ways (various coaching hires) and petty ones (Sunday is the first anniversary of former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin dodging Titleists and mustard bottles after leading Mississippi to a victory in Knoxville).
But one thing beyond the Vols’ control was being the lone school stuck facing Alabama, Florida and Georgia every single season. It is a hard hand to play over and over.
Tennessee has taken care of two of them this season, and the Nov. 5 trip to Sanford Stadium to meet Georgia looks like the new game of the year in the SEC. Of course, it’ll have to top Saturday’s. For sheer joy and delirium alone, it won’t be an easy task.
Fortune favors the bold. Or at least it should. So it was welcome to see the No. 20 Utes rewarded for going for two after pulling within a point with 48 seconds remaining against No. 7 Southern California.
One snap after Cameron Rising rumbled into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1, the Utah quarterback went right back up the middle for the go-ahead points in a 43-42 victory.
Even though Utah (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) had dominated in victories, its losses at Florida and UCLA had given the season a tinge of disappointment to this stage. Yet by dealing the Trojans their first loss, the Utes ensured they would remain firmly in the Pac-12 title hunt as they head into their bye week.
Oklahoma State (loser)
The No. 8 Cowboys were cooking in the first 20 minutes at No. 13 TCU, scoring on four of their first five possessions and bolting to a 17-point lead.
And then … well, that pace proved unsustainable, even for an offense that came into the day averaging 45.2 points.
Stare at that 43-40 double-overtime margin momentarily, and it’s easy to pin this loss on Oklahoma State’s defense. And the Pokes did squander a 30-16 advantage in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
But dig into the box score, and Oklahoma State (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) managed just two field goals in its final eight regulation possessions that didn’t involve taking a knee for the final play of the half. And against the Horned Frogs (6-0, 3-0), who opened league play by torching Oklahoma and trading second-half touchdowns with Kansas, that just wasn’t enough.
Oklahoma State’s loss leaves it a game behind TCU and Kansas State, who will clash next week, in the Big 12 standings. It also means the Horned Frogs are the last remaining overall undefeated team in the Big 12 — and thus the lone team in the conference with even a hint of a margin of error left for playoff purposes.
Notre Dame (loser)
Remember the Irish of the season’s opening two weeks — the team that couldn’t move the ball or get out of its own way? Well, it resurfaced in a 16-14 loss to Stanford.
Notre Dame (3-3) didn’t score in the first half. It fumbled as it neared the red zone on its next-to-last possession. And while the Cardinal (2-4) didn’t exactly control the line of scrimmage the way it did during the best times of the David Shaw era, it got into the end zone the first time it had the ball and added a field goal in each of the last three quarters to come out of South Bend with a victory.
It will probably go down as a season highlight for Stanford, just as winning at Notre Dame will be the first thing most folks remember about Marshall this year. As for the Irish, it has lost three games in a season for the first time since 2017 — and with Syracuse, Clemson and Southern California still to come, there are probably more setbacks on the way.
Southern California (loser)
The Trojans are not going to miss their biennial trips to Salt Lake City once they’re out of the Pac-12.
With its 43-42 loss at Utah, Southern Cal (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) has dropped four of its past five games at Rice-Eccles Stadium. On this particular night, the Trojans led by two touchdowns early, got 381 yards and five touchdowns passing from Caleb Williams, averaged 6.5 yards on 27 carries and still found a way to lose.
Credit Utah and quarterback Cameron Rising (415 yards, two passing touchdowns; 60 yards, three rushing touchdowns) for creating many of the Trojans’ problems. But USC’s defense, while better than last year’s mess, is far from elite.
If there is a silver lining for Lincoln Riley’s outfit, it is the chance to regroup. After an open date, the Trojans visit Arizona before facing California and Colorado at home. There’s still a decent chance Southern Cal will harbor conference and national title hopes when it heads across town to meet UCLA on Nov. 19.
There just isn’t any margin for error any longer — for USC or anyone else in the Pac-12 not named UCLA, which is the last undefeated team remaining in the Left Coast league.
There’s nothing fancy about the Orange. It plays largely sound defense against nearly everyone. It has three credible offensive options — hand off to Sean Tucker; let quarterback Garrett Shrader keep it; and toss it up to wide receiver Oronde Gadsden II.
And it is 6-0 after picking off N.C. State, 24-9, to set up a significant ACC Atlantic Division showdown at Clemson next week.
It will be the first time the Orange has left the Northeast this season; between five home games and a trip to Connecticut, the schedule was in its favor. Yet Syracuse still had to capitalize, and good luck finding any Orange team of the last two decades that could have done so as effectively.
Maybe the 2018 team that won 10 games could have — it did nearly win at Clemson early on — but it was also a strikingly different bunch. Coach Dino Babers arrived at Syracuse promising offensive fireworks to a stodgy program that usually wasn’t good and was even less interesting.
To his credit, he delivered. But the Orange’s reinvention over the last two seasons as a methodical rushing team with a defense that gets off the field quickly is impressive. Most coaches can’t — or won’t — pull off that change of personality. Babers will get credit for the 6-0 start, but his flexibility in altering his program is admirable.
Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum (winners)
The Michigan running backs trampled Penn State, combining for 339 yards and four touchdowns as the No. 5 Wolverines created separation in the second half of a 41-17 rout of the No. 10 Nittany Lions.
Corum, the starter, had 166 yards and two scores on 28 carries. Edwards, a backup for Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) but a rusher more than capable of taking a heavy load, amassed 173 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. His 67-yard gallop in the third quarter began a 25-0 run to end the game.
On this particular afternoon at the Big House, there was plenty of work to go around.
It was a humbling day for the Nittany Lions’ defense. In its first five games, Penn State allowed 398 rushing yards and entered the week fifth in the country against the run. Michigan rolled up 418 yards on the ground to clearly demonstrate which of the two is a greater threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten East this season.
Last week was good for the Buffaloes because they didn’t lose. Granted, it was a bye week, but “not losing” was a lot better than what the previous five weeks had delivered.
Saturday turned out even better. Colorado outlasted California 20-13 in overtime in interim coach Mike Sanford’s first game since taking over for the fired Karl Dorrell. It was hardly a work of art, but it was a considerable improvement for a team that was not competitive in its first five outings.
It isn’t a program-altering result by any stretch, and it won’t have any impact on the playoff picture or the Pac-12 title race. But there can’t be many teams happier than the Buffaloes this week after they collected their first victory of the season.
After three consecutive losses (and an ugly, ugly victory over Missouri State right before it), the Razorbacks needed a catharsis. They got it at BYU.
KJ Jefferson threw five touchdown passes, Raheim Sanders rushed for 175 yards and two scores and Matt Landers caught three touchdowns as Arkansas rolled to a 52-35 victory in Provo.
Arkansas (4-3) may not live up to its preseason top-20 buzz, but it can definitely be a fun team (the Hogs showed as much earlier this month when they dug a 28-point hole against Alabama, cut the deficit to five and faded in the fourth quarter). The opportunity is there for it to have more good days than bad on the back end of its schedule.
The Razorbacks get next week off, then close with road games against Auburn and Missouri sandwiched around a three-game homestand against Liberty, LSU and Mississippi. That’s not necessarily a five-game winning streak waiting to happen. But for sheer entertainment value, there are worse teams to carve out time for than the Hogs.
North Carolina State (loser)
The Wolfpack mustered three field goals in a 24-9 loss at Syracuse that could very well end its realistic hopes of an ACC title. That’s bad.
The program also announced quarterback Devin Leary would miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. That’s worse.
Even with Leary, N.C. State (5-2, 1-2 ACC) was in the midst of a string of mostly forgettable offensive performances. But forgettable isn’t the same as limited, and roughly five quarters without Leary (dating back to his injury in last week’s defeat of Florida State) makes it abundantly clear the Wolfpack isn’t going to manage much against good defenses.
A silver lining for the Wolfpack? They may be done seeing good defenses. After what now appears to be a well-timed open date, N.C. State gets a three-game homestand against Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College before closing at Louisville and North Carolina.
They’ll need to find some sort of spark to keep up with Wake Forest and North Carolina, but there’s still a chance at a decent season. But decent isn’t special, and that’s what the Wolfpack had realistic hopes of at the start of September.
That’s more like it. A week after getting shut out 49-0 by Texas, the Sooners were close to unstoppable in a 52-42 defeat of No. 19 Kansas.
It helped that Dillion Gabriel (403 yards, two touchdowns passing) returned from injury. It helped that Eric Gray sauntered to a 176-yard, two-touchdown day on the ground on just 20 carries. It helped that Kansas is cut from the same cloth as Oklahoma, which is to say its offense is good and its defense often a rumor.
And about that Sooner defense … it’s best not to discuss it too much. Oklahoma (4-3, 1-3 Big 12) fixed one side of the ball after its embarrassing Red River Whatchamacallit showing, piling up 701 yards and averaging 7 yards a play.
Yes, Oklahoma ran 100 plays. That’s one way to hide a defense.
It was already clear this isn’t a vintage Sooners team, and its defense probably won’t get solved this year. But Saturday demonstrated Oklahoma still has the capability of hanging half a hundred, and that means they shouldn’t be entirely counted out moving forward.
Speaking of teams with unrelenting rushing games, the No. 24 Illini dispatched Minnesota, 26-14, on the strength of another monster day from Chase Brown.
The veteran running back is a true throwback — not just for his yardage but his workload. Brown had 41 carries for 180 yards as Illinois (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) got postseason eligible with five games to spare and added the Golden Gophers to a list of Big Ten West victims that already includes Iowa and Wisconsin.
For those keeping count at home, that’s half the division. And it’s not as if the remaining schedule is overly daunting, either. The Illini visit Nebraska after a bye week, then meet Michigan State and Purdue at home before closing at Michigan and Northwestern.
Somebody has to win the Big Ten West. Why not a Bret Bielema-coached team that mimics the way Wisconsin and Iowa have had success on that side of the league, both with a ground-and-pound rushing attack and a defense that’s yielded just 62 points through seven games?
October has not been kind to the Golden Gophers. After a 4-0 start, they lost at home to Purdue while playing without star running back Mohamed Ibrahim.
Ibrahim was back Saturday, and he did what he normally does, piling up 127 yards in a 26-14 loss to Illinois. But the rest of Minnesota’s offense was nonexistent, and the Gophers’ 180 total yards was the fewest by a school from the Football Bowl Subdivision against the Illini since at least 2000.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan struggled before leaving in the fourth quarter after taking a hit to the head. With just 24 total points in its last two games, Minnesota (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) needs to solve its problems on offense if it is to climb back into a Big Ten West race that seemed certain to include it just a few weeks ago.
Old Dominion (winner)
The Monarchs waited until they couldn’t afford to lose a game before things turned around last season, transforming from a 1-6 team to one that earned its way into the postseason.
The 2022 revival started a little bit earlier — and without a huge hole — as Blake Watson ran for 256 yards and two scores in a 49-21 victory at previously undefeated Coastal Carolina.
Old Dominion (3-3, 2-0 Sun Belt) already had a memorable showing to its name, an opening-week defeat of Virginia Tech. That the Hokies are in the midst of probably their worst season in at least three decades hardly matters.
Still, the Monarchs have been up and down, and looked like they were headed for a toss-up game when they led 14-7 at the break. But rather than let the Chanticleers (6-1, 3-1) dictate the second half, Old Dominion scored touchdowns on each of its possessions after the break to come away with a lopsided victory on teal turf.