College football pick-six: Alabama is a foregone conclusion, but let us remain hopeful
A weekly journey through the vast landscape of college football, along with a few brief asides.
Cliched Storyline of the Week
Argh, fine. Let’s just go over this Alabama thing again, because it appears the Crimson Tide, after last Saturday’s thrashing of Arkansas, have truly achieved such a level of eff-you success that their only legitimate threat is emanating from within. Nick Saban has slowly morphed from perfectionist into aging busybody; his postgame chats now often sound "like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli."
It’s nothing new to pose the crucial question of college football’s midseason like so: Is there anyone capable of defeating Alabama? The only good news about last weekend’s results is that Texas’ defeat of Oklahoma cracked open the firmament just enough to allow us to foment "The Argument" that tends to define every college football season at roughly its midway point. Like: Maybe someone new can come along and defeat Alabama?
At this point, most of the arguments against Alabama — like the notion that its historic offensive numbers are being achieved against the equivalent of upper-tier high school talent — are, even if vaguely true, informed by patently idiotic talk radio chatter. Alabama’s offense is putting up numbers so historic that just reading about them makes me feel like I’ve been slipped peyote. Given the overarching uncertainty of the SEC beyond its top two, and given the sudden malaise that’s settled like a haze of Charmin over Toomer’s Corner, the remainder of the Tide's regular-season schedule feels more like a foregone conclusion than perhaps for any college football team I’ve ever witnessed.
So the only true entertainment in watching Alabama — at least up until the almost-certain matchup in the SEC Championship game against Georgia — will be continuing to witness Tua Tagovailoa’s numbers balloon to near-mythic proportions and watching Saban conjure new ways to ratchet up the crankiness. And then there's the waiting until the SEC Championship, and perhaps even until the Playoff itself, with the hope that either someone new (or someone improved) can actually come along and defeat Bama.
Distant Playoff Watch of the Week
What about the remainder of that firmament beyond Alabama? This is where it starts to get interesting. There are now 11 remaining undefeated teams, which is actually slightly fewer than the average at this point of the season in years past. And that number should dwindle quite rapidly over the course of the next few weeks, which means we could be in for a muddled Playoff selection process once more.
Here, for now, is the hierarchy of the undefeated:
Tier 1: Alabama — It’s like Bear Bryant hovering over practice in that tower. The Tide deserve their own tier at this point.
Tier 2: Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia—Not Alabama, but they seem capable of beating Alabama on a perfect day.
Tier 3: Notre Dame — The Irish almost achieved Tier 2 status, but I’ll wait for one more decisive victory.
Tier 4: West Virginia, N.C. State, Colorado, UCF — I elevate UCF above the other Group of Five schools because history matters here, even though, theoretically, it shouldn’t. If UCF goes 12-0 again, and the quest for that fourth spot is muddled and unclear, could the Knights actually sneak in? I doubt it because the system is stacked against them. But it’s worth speculating.
Tier 5: Cincinnati, USF — These are teams that could go 12-0 and would not sniff the Playoff because they did not go 12-0 the year before.
The Morris Buttermaker Dude of the Week
I have no idea if the Heisman Trophy is truly drifting into irrelevance, but here, perhaps, is one reason why it might be: On Saturday, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 92 yards and another touchdown and led his team back from a 21-point deficit by making perhaps the most iconic play of the season to date — and yet he somehow dropped from second to third in the Heisman rankings of the majority of pundits because a defense that Murray has no control over gave up 48 points to Texas.
Now, I recognize that Tagovailoa is putting up psychedelically absurd numbers, and I can make no contrarian case as to why he shouldn’t be at the top of every one of these lists. But this is an unusual case in which the best-player-best team argument indisputably converges. I hope it doesn’t obscure the larger truth, which is that this best-player-best-team convergence often is inflated by voters seeking an easy way out. You cannot tell me that Dwayne Haskins — who was often very good but not great in Ohio State’s toughest victory of the season over Penn State — is objectively having a better year than Murray, even if Murray’s team is no longer undefeated.
Winning is not everything when it comes to the Heisman, and it should never be. It’s a flawed argument that has left us, in past years, with Heisman winners who appear ridiculous in retrospect. Which is why even if Tagovailoa winds up running away with this thing, it still matters who finishes second.
The Week in Weird
Football is embracing rampant modernization, so much so that a humble spread college quarterback from Texas Tech has disrupted the staid ecosystem of the NFL. But there are still certain places where the game is practiced in a vintage style, embraced by coaches who seem readily determined to push the game back to an era when we wore onions on our belts.
I am speaking, of course, about Iowa, where both the corn and the ethanol subsidies grow high. And out on the plains, Kirk Ferentz is being Kirk Ferentz, and embracing techniques straight out of the single-wing age to roll up points.
Off-topic Recommendations of the Week: Georgia-LSU, 1998 flashback edition
In 1998, Georgia stunned undefeated LSU, 28-27. That same year, Athens, Georgia-based R.E.M. released "Up," one of the most underrated albums in the R.E.M catalog, and nothing will get you fired up for SEC football like mid-tempo ‘90s indie rock. Also, 1998 saw the release of "Rounders," the over-the-top Matt Damon poker movie that leads directly into this fascinating Bill Simmons discussion with Damon that sheds light on why the theatrical film business has become such a depressing wasteland.
Your weekly dose of historical context
Undefeated Colorado faces USC for the 13th time in program history this weekend. The first meeting was in 1927, and USC won 46-7. The most recent meeting was last year, and USC won, 38-24. In the 11 meetings between, USC outscored Colorado 335-138 and also went 11-0 in those games. So, you know, you get the idea.