The one thing all playoff contenders must have
"Silly question," Aaron Suttles of The Tuscaloosa News said to Nick Saban before asking a question that wasn't silly at all. "Do you win that game without Jalen?"
"Jalen" is Jalen Hurts, Alabama's true freshman quarterback who contributed the biggest plays and the biggest mistake the Crimson Tide offense made in a 10–0 win at LSU. He was, in many ways, the difference on a night when each defense seemed impenetrable. His 21-yard scramble on third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter broke a scoreless tie that felt as if it would last until December. His 23-yard run on third-and-15 during Alabama's next possession set up the field goal that gave the Tide an insurmountable lead. But Hurts also lost a third-quarter fumble because of poor ball security. Had LSU had a better quarterback, it might have cost the Tide the game and much, much more.
But that's the thing. LSU didn't have the better quarterback. Alabama did. If Saturday's games did anything, they reinforced the notion that there is a baseline level of quarterback play required to lead a team to the College Football Playoff. Every signal-caller doesn't have to be an All-America, but the ones who don't meet that threshold probably can't lead their teams into the top four on Dec. 4.
We learned that early Saturday as Texas A&M struggled and ultimately lost without an injured Trevor Knight. We learned it late Saturday as Washington—which doesn't have to worry about being ranked behind the Aggies anymore — torched Cal thanks in part to 378 passing yards and six touchdown tosses from Jake Browning. In the middle, Clemson's Deshaun Watson dominated Syracuse before leaving with a bruised shoulder, Hurts helped Alabama hang on and J.T. Barrett threw four touchdown passes as Ohio State dominated Nebraska.
WEEK 10 TAKEAWAYS: 6 biggest things we learned
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Watson could have returned to the Syracuse game, allaying any fears of a dramatic shift in the Tigers' fortunes. Knowing he'll be back, we can keep him on the list of quarterbacks who have played well enough to show they can lead a team into the playoff and beyond and have the supporting cast to actually reach the playoff. Here is the list (in alphabetical order by last name) after Saturday.
J.T. Barrett — Ohio State
Jake Browning — Washington
Skyler Howard — West Virginia
Jalen Hurts — Alabama
Lamar Jackson — Louisville
Baker Mayfield — Oklahoma
Mason Rudolph — Oklahoma State
Wilton Speight — Michigan
Mitch Trubisky — North Carolina
Deshaun Watson — Clemson
Sean White — Auburn
Obviously, a few quarterbacks on this list will need some pretty serious chaos to have a chance to make the playoff. Texas A&M's Knight would have been on the list, but if he's out for any extended period of time, the Aggies will struggle against anyone of comparable talent because their run game simply doesn't work as well without the threat of Knight keeping the ball. (Meanwhile, if Mississippi State sophomore Nick Fitzgerald can keep playing the way he did Saturday, he may wind up on a list like this in the future.)
LSU had everything it needed to shock the Tide on Saturday except the quarterback play. While Hurts struggled to deliver the ball to his receivers, he found a way to beat the Tigers with his legs. LSU quarterback Danny Etling, who came to the Tigers from Purdue, could beat the Tide with neither his legs nor his arm. Even with all the other pieces in place, LSU could not get over the hump because it lacked a dynamic quarterback.
Elsewhere in the SEC, Florida learned the same lesson. Entering Saturday, the Gators could have made the playoff by winning all their remaining games. (That wasn't going to happen, but it was mathematically possible.) After a 31–10 loss to Arkansas, Florida runs the risk of losing an SEC East title that had been gift-wrapped for the Gators when Tennessee lost to South Carolina on Oct. 29. Now coach Jim McElwain must decide whether to stick with quarterback Luke Del Rio or shift to Austin Appleby, another Purdue transfer who started two games in place of an injured Del Rio earlier this season. McElwain may also consider burning the redshirts of either Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask. Florida's next opponent, South Carolina, did just that with Jake Bentley two weeks ago and may go from doormat to bowl eligible because of it.
On the other side of the country, USC probably has the best chance of any remaining opponent to knock off Washington because redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has unlocked the talent on the Trojans' offense since taking over as the starter in Week 4. It's hard to watch USC now and not wonder what might have happened had Darnold been named the starter in preseason camp instead of Max Browne. USC probably still would have lost to Alabama—but probably not 52–6—and might not have been dominated by Stanford. Had Darnold been making his fourth start instead of his first at Utah, the Trojans might have won that game, too.
Saban faced a choice similar to USC's Clay Helton in camp. He had older quarterbacks who might transfer if they didn't get a shot. Saban started Blake Barnett in the season opener against USC, but it was clear when Hurts came in early in that game that he was the quarterback of the present and future. Barnett has since withdrawn from Alabama and Hurts has the Tide in position to win the SEC West and the SEC and compete for the national title even though he hasn't played anywhere near his ceiling yet. In fact, Hurts looks an awful lot this season like a certain 2016 sophomore did when he learned on the fly last season. That sophomore has noticed the similarity.
Jalen hurts💯— Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) November 6, 2016
The question with Hurts is whether a more polished passer without the running ability—think AJ McCarron as a junior or senior—would have been able to move the ball through the air against LSU on Saturday. Or was Hurts the player Alabama needed? That's why Suttles asked that question, and Saban gave him a great answer.
"There are things that we need to do better at the quarterback position," Saban said. "We made some errors early in the game that were costly. We made some plays later in the game that his athleticism allowed him to make. As we grow with him, we're going to have to live with both. I like the second part better than the first. He's a great competitor. He never loses his poise, but we need to execute better."
Translation: I know what kind of potential this guy has, and I'm willing to trade any growing pains for the plentiful rewards to come.
A random ranking
I put out the call Sunday for topics to rank, and reader Davey Young jogged my memory with this suggestion.
Back in 2014, I had gleefully relinquished my Associated Press poll vote but needed a way to satisfy my hankering for rankering. So I hinted that I might just rank random things in this new column we were developing.
Maybe I'll just randomly rank other things. Like '80s kid show theme songs.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) July 30, 2014
1. Gummi Bears
3. G.I. Joe
Except I never got around to actually ranking said theme songs. That gets corrected today. The top three have already been spoiled. No. 1 may not be familiar, but once you hear it, it will never leave your skull. Or maybe that only works if you're seven the first time you hear it.
1. Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears
3. G.I. Joe
6. Inspector Gadget
9. Garfield and Friends
10. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Projected College Football Playoff bracket
The Crimson Tide exposed some offensive vulnerabilities Saturday, but the defense looked as impenetrable as ever. Alabama isn't unbeatable, but the Crimson Tide would be favored on a neutral field against anyone.
This is true as long as Watson is O.K., and Swinney's assertion that Watson could have returned against Syracuse suggests the quarterback and his bruised shoulder will be fine for the stretch run. If Watson isn't O.K., adjustments will have to be made. This would be an interesting challenge for the selection committee as well. The basketball committee adjusts seeding because of key injuries. It stands to reason the football committee would do the same. Clemson didn't need Watson to come back Saturday because the Tigers had put away the Orange early. This is precisely what we were waiting for Clemson to do to an opponent.
Another lackluster opponent, another blowout for the Wolverines. We can ask legitimate questions about what happens when Michigan faces another good team, but we cannot argue with the Wolverines' consistency. Michigan's only truly close game was against Wisconsin, which has proven itself an excellent foil. Colorado, which still may win the Pac-12 South, landed a punch before the Wolverines pulled away in the second half. Every other game has been a beatdown of an inferior opponent. That's all we can ask of the Wolverines at this point.
Will the committee place Washington here this week or jump Ohio State over the Huskies just to drive everyone west of the Rockies crazy? With Texas A&M losing, last week's argument is moot. The committee ranked Washington ahead of Ohio State last week, but that was before the Buckeyes destroyed Nebraska, which came in ranked 7–1. (Ask 2014 TCU what happens when you whip an inferior conference opponent and Ohio State blows the doors off an allegedly good team.) I'm leaving Washington here because the Huskies have been more consistent than the Buckeyes. But if Saturday was Ohio State's new normal, that may change. Of course, that could affect Michigan's rank as well.
Big Ugly of the Week
The Walter Camp Football Foundation couldn't single out a member of Alabama's defense after such a dominant performance, so the entire unit got the Foundation's defensive player of the week award.
After the Tide held LSU tailback Leonard Fournette to 35 yards on 17 carries, I have the same problem with regard to Alabama's defensive line. Why single out one person when everyone dominated? But if you'd like to see a play that encapsulates this wire-to-wire dominance, watch this from defensive tackle Da'ron Payne.
1. Oregon's win against Arizona State wasn't the start of a trend. Against much improved USC, the Ducks got hammered again. Oregon was never close in a 45–20 loss to the Trojans, and this tweet from Saturday by ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell only added to the intrigue.
There's talk heating up in Oregon that Phil Knight is ready to throw insane $10M+ a year money at a football coach. He's 78, wants a title.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) November 5, 2016
Whether this is true remains to be seen, but if Oregon did want to fire Mark Helfrich and replace him with an established difference-maker of a coach, a ridiculous sum might be the only way to pry someone from his current job. LSU is open. Texas may or may not open—we'll discuss that in a moment. Oregon is going to be at best No. 2 on that list.
But what if LSU decides to make interim coach Ed Orgeron the permanent coach and Charlie Strong wins out? Then the Ducks could have the best job available. Oregon, which appears to have a quarterback of the future in Justin Herbert, could keep Helfrich and hope for the best. Or the Ducks could throw out serious cash and see if anyone bites. Saban, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney probably aren't leaving, but someone might use Oregon to get a raise at his current job.
If the Ducks want Chip Kelly back, they'd probably have to pay up. As poorly as Kelly's 49ers are doing, he seems to have the support of the owners and would need a serious incentive to go back to a job that requires recruiting and gladhanding boosters.
Still, another wave of coaches would be intrigued—and for far less than $10 million. Houston's Tom Herman would be an obvious candidate, but if the Ducks are throwing out serious coin, they might also draw interest from established Power 5 coaches such as North Carolina's Larry Fedora, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen or West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen.
Another intriguing possibility is Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, who took over a terrible situation and has built the Buffaloes into one of the Pac-12's best teams. According to MacIntyre's original Colorado contract, his buyout is $1.3 million until Jan. 1, when it drops to $1 million.
2. Speaking of coaches who inherited difficult situations and found success, Dave Clawson has Wake Forest bowling. After winning six games—and only two in ACC play—in Clawson's first two seasons in Winston-Salem, the Demon Deacons stand at 6–3 (3–2 ACC) after Saturday's 27–20 win against Virginia. Wake Forest plays Louisville and Clemson in its next two games, so don't expect the win total to budge again until Boston College visits to close the regular season.
3. The win total has risen at Texas the past two weeks, and one of the reasons is the Longhorns' defense has improved with head coach Strong calling the plays. In the four games prior to the demotion of Vance Bedford, the Longhorns had allowed six yards a play, forced one turnover and allowed 38.2 points a game. In the five games since, the Longhorns have allowed 5.6 yards a play, forced 12 turnovers and allowed 29.2 points a game. (And not all of that is on the defense. During Saturday's 45–37 Texas win in Lubbock, Texas Tech scored on a fumble return.)
Will this be enough to save Strong's job? That remains to be seen. Texas hasn't fired coaches in midseason, and that doesn't seem to be changing. So instead of riding the emotional rollercoaster of a team that wins basically every other game, Texas officials will wait until season's end and evaluate Strong's performance. The Longhorns face their toughest remaining test Saturday when West Virginia comes to Austin. The Mountaineers still have designs on a Big 12 title and need a win to stay in the race. A win against West Virginia, meanwhile, would offer further evidence of improvement for Texas. It also would make an 8–4 regular season a very realistic possibility.
4. Lane Kiffin gives his visor to a fan after every game. The fan usually wants the visor as a souvenir. Saturday, these LSU fans were not impressed. Great job by AL.com to capture this magical moment on video.
5. At least Kiffin was celebrating a win when his visor giveaway was mocked. Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville was leaving the field at Nippert Stadium following a 20–3 loss to BYU on Saturday when he encountered a heckler who accused Tuberville—whose Bearcats are 4–5—of "stealing money from the university." Tuberville was not amused.
6. It seems no one wants to win the SEC East. Florida, which has the most control over its path to Atlanta, gave away some of that control with a 31–10 loss at Arkansas. An Arkansas defense that allowed Auburn to run for 543 yards two weeks earlier allowed only 12 rushing yards against the Gators. "First and foremost for the guys who made the trip down here, I apologize you had to sit through that," Florida coach Jim McElwain told reporters. "I feel horrible for Gator Nation and the way everything kind of played out." Florida now must beat South Carolina at home and beat LSU in Baton Rouge on Nov. 19 to clinch the East title.
Kentucky apparently doesn't want to win the East, either. The Wildcats had a chance to exert some control themselves but lost Saturday night on a last-second field goal by Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship. Kentucky still has a chance to win outright, though. That would require the Wildcats to win at Tennessee this week and Florida to lose to South Carolina and LSU.
Tennessee, at 2–3 in the SEC, still seems the most likely team to go to Atlanta. If the Volunteers can win out against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt and Florida loses to either South Carolina or LSU, the Vols would win the East.
The most fitting end for this miserable division, however, would involve a five-way tie with Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee all finishing 4–4. This is highly unlikely, as it would require Georgia to beat Auburn, South Carolina and LSU to beat Florida and either Missouri or Vanderbilt to beat Tennessee. Who would win in that scenario? Who cares? If it happens, the league should borrow SEC Network editor Brandon Zimmerman's idea. (Spoiler alert: Alabama—or Auburn, if the Tigers win the Iron Bowl—still wins.)
New idea: SEC East All-Star team vs. Alabama in the SEC title game.— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) October 31, 2016
7. Vanderbilt would be left out of that five-way tie, but linebacker Zach Cunningham would be a valuable member of the hypothetical SEC East all-star team.
8. Washington receiver John Ross ran far more than the 67 yards for which he was credited on this touchdown catch.
9. Former Bears running back Marshawn Lynch had far more fun than Cal's secondary on Saturday.
10. Imagine these Power Rangers showing up at your door on Halloween.
What's eating Andy?
Dear people from both major political parties who have threatened to move to Canada if your candidate doesn't win Tuesday,
Please do it. Please, please, please make good on your threat. In fact, move Wednesday morning. Enjoy the poutine, the cold and the milk in a bag. The grown-ups who can handle the fact that a democracy means you don't always get what you want will be just fine down here.
P.S.: Please say hi to Rick Moranis if you see him.
What's Andy eating?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about grown-up oases in college towns when I reviewed Theo's in Fayetteville, Ark. I'd be remiss if I didn't bring to your attention another spot in a different SEC town that serves the same purpose. So order an Old Fashioned and pull up a stool at The Hound, another haven for grown-ups surrounded by the swirl of hormones on campus.
Auburn's dining scene has taken off in the past few years. If you read this space regularly, you already know about Acre. The locals also rave about LiveOaks. But it's tough to beat the combination of beverages and comfort food at The Hound. The photos section of The Hound's Facebook page probably qualifies as NSFW. Each day brings a new sandwich or mac and cheese concoction. A Monte Cristo may follow a wild boar burger. Pork belly may replace chorizo in the appetizer mac and cheese special.
The deer antler door handles might be a tad over-the-top, but any people who care this much about meat, macaroni and cheese can decorate however they damn well please. On my visit, the mac and cheese special was Philly Cheesesteak, with chunks of beef suspended in gooey melted cheese. There were three of us. A fight nearly broke out over the last bite.
Meanwhile, I couldn't stop slathering the Mama Sue's jalapeño jelly and cream cheese on Ritz crackers. The Hound, like nearly all its college town counterparts, has a pimento cheese appetizer, but we skipped it in favor of the pepper jelly. This was the wise play. I wound up scraping the last few drops of jelly onto a cracker just to get one last fix before we departed.
For the main course, I had the beautifully named Big Fat Steak. It's a 16-ounce ribeye served swimming it its own juice with a side of compound butter. There are no exotic seasonings because this orgy of bovine fat and meat requires none. I ordered mine rare, and it was cooked perfectly. Each bite got dipped in the stew of the steak's juices and lustily consumed.
My only regret is that I had a drive ahead and couldn't enjoy anything from the wall of bourbon behind the bar. Next time I visit, I plan to stay considerably longer.