The rhythm of the college football schedule dictates that we spend nine months asking the same questions and discussing the same issues before being presented with a flood of data that either answers our questions or generates entirely new ones. After two weeks, we’ve already gotten a few answers. But some questions still hang in the air, and some questions have been spawned by new information.
So two games in (for most teams), let’s look at what we know and what we still haven’t quite figured out.
Things We Know
That incredible half from Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the national title game was just the beginning. Check out this stat from our friend Bruce Feldman. This should terrify an Ole Miss defense that just allowed 41 points to Southern Illinois and has to face Alabama on Saturday in Oxford.
The quarterback derby between Tagovailoa and incumbent starter Jalen Hurts dominated offseason headlines, but the competition was over after Week 1. Tagovailoa is in a unique position here. It would be easy to dismiss his shredding of Louisville and Arkansas State (25-of-35 for 455 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions) as feasting on lesser competition, but we’ve already seen Tagovailoa do something similar against an elite Georgia defense on the sport’s biggest stage.
Now the rest of college football must contend with an unpleasant thought: What if you took a typical Nick Saban Alabama team—with its usual suffocating defense and bruising running game—and gave it one of the nation’s most dynamic quarterbacks and a stable of athletic young receivers?
That’s what this Alabama team is, and it’s going to be difficult to find a weakness.
The Herm Edwards experiment is going to work. This isn’t a prediction of a Pac-12 title or even a Pac-12 South title for Arizona State—though the latter certainly seems possible given what we’ve seen so far. It is, however, an acknowledgement that in year one Arizona State should meet or surpass what Todd Graham was doing. After that, the future could be bright.
Given what we know of Edwards’s personality, he seems like a natural recruiter. That piece never felt in question. The unknown part was how Edwards would adjust to running a team 10 years after he last coached. The NFL of 2008 looked like an entirely different sport than college football in 2018. Could Edwards adapt? This idea seemed dubious when Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson first hired Edwards and said Edwards would lean on his coordinators, only to have defensive coordinator Phil Bennett leave for personal reasons and offensive coordinator Billy Napier leave to become the head coach at Louisiana.
But through two games, the Sun Devils look like one of the best teams in the Pac-12. Their 16–13 win against a Michigan State team that won nine games last year and brought back most of its two-deep showed Arizona State can hang with talented, tough, well-coached teams. The Sun Devils have a difference-maker at receiver (N’Keal Harry) and a quarterback who can get him the ball (Manny Wilkins). They also have a defense that has allowed just 4.2 yards a play through the first two games. Arizona State has only allowed 65 rushing yards in those games.
“This was an old-time pro football game. This wasn’t a college game,” Edwards told reporters after the win. “College games get up into the 40s and the 50s. This was a rock ‘em, sock ‘em game. It was comfortable for me. I’m used to games like this.”
He looks as if he’d be comfortable in any type of game at this level, and that wasn’t something I thought I’d be saying after Week 2.
Tristan Gebbia would have had a chance to be the hero at Nebraska on Saturday, and he’d probably be Nebraska’s starting quarterback today (at least for a little while). Instead, Gebbia is cooling his heels in Corvallis while the Cornhuskers get walk-on Andrew Bunch ready in case starter Adrian Martinez is too hurt to play against Troy.
I rarely criticize players who transfer, because everyone has the right to choose his own path. Hopefully, that path leads to success. Players should look out for their own best interests. But sometimes players transfer when it seems against their own best interests.
That feels like what happened with Gebbia, who left Nebraska for Oregon State a day after coach Scott Frost announced Martinez would start. Gebbia had already redshirted, so any transfer to another FBS school meant he’d have to sit out 2018. But given the fact that Nebraska runs an option-based offense that requires a heavy amount of quarterback run, there was always a good chance that Nebraska’s backup could become Nebraska’s starter sooner rather than later.
That moment may have come in the fourth quarter of Nebraska’s 33–28 loss to Colorado, when Martinez got his right knee twisted on a play. Nebraska hasn’t released any information about the injury other than Frost saying the prognosis on the sideline was “semi-encouraging.” But that might only mean that Martinez isn’t out for the season. He still might not be ready to start against Troy this week or Michigan next week. Gebbia could have been in line to replace him, and while Martinez’s first game showed flashes that he could be special, it’s also possible Gebbia could have come in and tried to pull a Jake Fromm. Last year, Fromm replaced injured starter Jacob Eason in Georgia’s first game, never gave the starting job back even when Eason returned healthy and led the Bulldogs to the SEC title, a Rose Bowl win and a berth in the national title game. That probably wouldn’t have all happened at Nebraska, but Gebbia probably would have had a real chance to do the job he competed for all offseason.
The reclamation project at Florida is going to take longer than expected, which you could have spotted if you didn’t get blinded by a bunch of touchdown passes against Charleston Southern. Sure, Dan Mullen shouldn’t have been the first Florida coach to lose to Kentucky since Galen Hall in 1986. Florida plays Mullen $6 million a year to win every game. But the practical reality is that Mullen inherited a team that is much more similar in terms of talent to Kentucky than it is to Alabama or Georgia, and he’s going to need a little while to correct that.
On Saturday, the Gators and Wildcats looked about equal in talent with one glaring exception: Kentucky had a dynamic quarterback in Terry Wilson. Wilson started his career at Oregon, but he transferred to Garden City (Kan.) Community College when it became clear he wasn’t passing Justin Herbert on the depth chart. He could play 2017 at the juco and then play for a new school in 2018 instead of sitting out ’17 and playing this season. Kentucky recruited Wilson hard for most of last season. Nebraska jumped in when Scott Frost, who had recruited Wilson at Oregon, took the job in Lincoln. Within a week of taking the Florida job, Mullen also offered Wilson. But before Wilson could take a scheduled official visit to Florida, he committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to Lexington.
The bottom line is that for the Gators to be what they want to be, they can’t be comparable to Kentucky in terms of talent. They need to be comparable to Alabama, Georgia or Auburn. But to do that, they’ll have to start beating out those schools for recruits. At the moment, that isn’t happening. And Saturday showed how much Florida fell in terms of talent during the Jim McElwain era. The Will Muschamp recruits—who kept the Gators afloat with a dominant defense—are gone, meaning injuries could be crippling. Cornerback Marco Wilson, the younger brother of Muschamp-era signee and 2017 second-round pick Quincy Wilson, tore his ACL Saturday night and will be lost for the season. Three years ago, Florida could have just plugged in another future early-round pick. That isn’t the case anymore.
Mullen said something pretty telling after Kentucky broke its 31-game losing streak against Florida with a 27–16 win in Gainesville. “What if we hit a Hail Mary on the last play?” Mullen asked rhetorically during his press conference. “We’d still have the same issues and problems.”
This was an interesting way to put it, because it describes the end of last year’s Florida win over Tennessee. After that game, I wrote that other than a bomb at the end of the game that found its target, there wasn’t a ton of difference between where Jim McElwain’s Florida team was compared to Butch Jones’s Tennessee team. Sure enough, neither one finished last season coaching.
The prevailing wisdom in the SEC was that Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt had taken the toughest job, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead had taken the most ready-made job and Mullen had taken the job best positioned for long-term success. That success will only happen if Mullen pulls Florida out of a talent hole. We’ll see on Sept. 22 when the teams play, but Florida’s trip to Knoxville could show that the job Mullen took and the job Pruitt took aren’t that different.
Things We Still Don’t Know
Who is Clemson’s QB1? Senior Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence have each showed flashes this season, but neither one has shut the other out of the race to take the most snaps with the first team.
Bryant won the right to start out of camp, and his performance in Saturday’s 28–26 win at Texas A&M should only solidify his hold on the first few series of the game. Bryant was brilliant in the third quarter as Clemson built a lead and did an excellent job of helping the Tigers keep the ball away from the surging Aggies for long enough to win the game.
There were times Lawrence looked like a freshman, but he also threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins on his first play. Lawrence’s ability to stretch the field provides a dynamic that Bryant doesn’t, which is why Lawrence likely will keep getting snaps.
Can Michigan compete in the Big Ten East? The Michigan–Notre Dame game was ripe for overreaction, and the most popular take from the Wolverines’ 24–17 loss was that this might be the same Michigan team as last year with a different quarterback.
And the Wolverines might be the same. Their inability to protect Shea Patterson or establish the run against Notre Dame sure looked like a lot of games last season. But is that representative or just a first-game hiccup? The line had no issues Saturday in a 49–3 win over Western Michigan, but that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme. The Wolverines also shouldn’t have much trouble with SMU this week. The bigger test will come next week when Nebraska visits the Big House. The Cornhuskers aren’t like Wisconsin or Ohio State on the defensive line, but they’re good enough to cause problems. Michigan needs to prove it can handle a defense like that before it graduates to the Badgers and Buckeyes.
Is Texas going to be mediocre again? The situation at Texas remains mystifying. Since Colt McCoy’s final game at the end of the 2009 season, the Longhorns are 54–49. Three coaches who at other times have proven they know what they’re doing—Mack Brown, Charlie Strong and Tom Herman—have failed to break through the Wall of Meh.
It made no sense when Texas opened a second consecutive season with a loss to Maryland. It made no sense Saturday when the Longhorns slogged through a 28–21 win over Tulsa. Through two games, this looks like another 6–6 team. Maybe that will change going forward. But nothing Texas has tried in the past five years has worked. So why should we expect anything different?
The Longhorns have a chance to grab some momentum this week when USC comes to Austin. After watching the clunker the Trojans put up at Stanford, it’s possible Texas can win this game even without making any significant improvement. That would give Texas confidence heading into Big 12 play. If the Longhorns don’t want to find themselves in another Groundhog Day season, they’ll need to beat USC and then build on that.
• Start a free seven-day trial of SI TV today to see Andy Staples’s full 30-minute interview with Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic’s polarizing head coach, along with other in-depth interviews and features on the biggest names in sports.
A Random Ranking
Season two of Ozark dropped on Netflix recently. So let’s rank all the television shows that starred Jason Bateman from best to worst. (The shows where he was a lead, so Little House on the Prairie is out.) You’ll see that Mr. Bateman had some terrible luck with projects near the turn of this century.
1. Arrested Development
3. Valerie/The Hogan Family
4. Sit Down, Shut Up
5. It’s Your Move
6. Some Of My Best Friends
7. The Jake Effect
8. Chicago Sons
In this section, we’ll use what we’ve seen so far this season to predict how the playoff committee will seed the bracket. This won’t always match the top four of the Top 10 Plus One that I publish after each week of games. While that is a pure power ranking, this takes into account schedules and conference dynamics along with other factors that affect playoff selection/seeding.
1. Alabama (2–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Arkansas State, 57–7
Next game: At Ole Miss
Now begins SEC play for the Crimson Tide. Saturday should be interesting because it will be the first real test for the Alabama defense. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, the Rebels’ defense hasn’t done anything to suggest it will challenge the Tide.
2. Ohio State (2–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Rutgers, 52–3
Next game: vs. TCU in Arlington, Texas
While some teams still have quarterback competitions, the Buckeyes have two quarterbacks with different skill sets who should be able to operate in concert with defined roles. Urban Meyer has done this before, winning a national title in 2006 at Florida with Chris Leak starting and Tim Tebow relieving him—usually on short-yardage situations. The Buckeyes can do the same thing with starter Dwayne Haskins (the superior thrower) and backup Tate Martell (the superior runner). Though Martell completing all 10 of his passes for 121 yards and a touchdown on Saturday should give Ohio State coaches confidence that Martell can run the offense if anything happens to Haskins.
3. Oklahoma (2–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat UCLA, 49–21
Next game: at Iowa State
Where’s Georgia here? The Bulldogs were No. 3 in the top 10 I published early Sunday morning. This is where those playoff selection dynamics come into play. Even though my preseason prediction was Georgia beating Alabama in the SEC title game and making the playoff, we throw out preseason predictions once the games start. Given what we’ve seen from Alabama so far, it’s tough to pick against the Crimson Tide. And if Georgia doesn’t come into the SEC title game 12–0, it’s tough to imagine the Bulldogs losing that game to drop to 11–2 and making the playoff. So I’m putting Oklahoma here, though I’m not sure how long the Sooners will stay here. A knee injury suffered by tailback Rodney Anderson could seriously affect the offense against better defenses. Of course, given the way quarterback Kyler Murray has played in the first two games, perhaps the Sooners can remain dynamic even without Anderson.
4. Clemson (2–0)
Last week: 4
Last game: Beat Texas A&M, 28–26
Next game: vs. Georgia Southern
The Tigers survived in College Station, but their performance raised some questions that won’t be answered for a few weeks.
We already covered the first major question above. And in truth, there is no reason for the Tigers to lock themselves into a situation where one quarterback (probably Bryant) plays all the snaps with the game still in doubt. Given their schedule, they could go for a while with this arrangement. Here’s another question: Are Texas A&M and quarterback Kellen Mond just good, or is Clemson’s secondary that vulnerable?
We probably won’t have a gauge on this one until the Aggies visit Tuscaloosa on Sept. 22. Clemson plays Georgia Southern this week and Georgia Tech next week, so its secondary won’t get much action.
Big Ugly of the Week
It takes some good blocking to break a 31-game losing streak against a team, and all of Kentucky’s offensive linemen deserve credit for helping the Wildcats roll up 303 rushing yards at 7.4 yards a carry in Kentucky’s 27–16 win at Florida on Saturday. But today, we’ll give special recognition to right guard Bunchy Stallings* for exceptional nastiness and a willingness to block through the whistle whenever possible.
*Also for having an excellent nickname. His first name on his birth certificate is Jervontius.
Stallings pulled and blocked a linebacker to spring Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson for a 24-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He saved his best play for the final quarter, though. The Wildcats were nursing a 21–16 lead and needed to keep making first downs to grind out the win. They faced a third-and-one on their own 34-yard line with 2:45 remaining. Failure would have forced a punt, which would have given the Gators the ball with decent field position and enough time to move down the field. So what did Stallings do? He pulled left and erased the only tackler who could have possibly touched Benny Snell ahead of the first down marker.
Three and Out
1. Florida lost to Kentucky for the first time in 32 years Saturday, and it’s possible Gators fans weren’t even the most miserable in their own state. Florida State didn’t take its first lead until late in the fourth quarter and barely escaped FCS foe Samford as the Seminoles continued a perplexing start under first-year coach Willie Taggart. Samford led by five until Florida State’s Deondre Francois found tight end Tre’ McKitty for a five-yard touchdown pass with 4:03 remaining. The Seminoles wound up winning 36–26 after Levonta Taylor intercepted champion duck caller Devlin Hodges (no, really) and returned the ball 63 yards for a touchdown.
Though the Seminoles aren’t what they were when they were competing for national titles, Taggart did not inherit the same talent deficit as Mullen. Florida State should not be sweating out a win against an FCS opponent days after taking a three-touchdown loss to an ACC foe. If the Seminoles play the way they did in the first two games, they’ll lose at Syracuse on Saturday.
Perhaps the solution is to enhance Florida State’s swag. On Saturday, the Seminoles debuted the Secure The Bag bag, which is really just a turnover backpack. Miami has a blinged-out chain. Boise State has a throne. Florida State has a backpack.
Naturally, the Internet let the Dora jokes fly.
2. Duke picked up a huge win on the road against Northwestern on Saturday, but the Blue Devils lost two critical players. Quarterback Daniel Jones will miss an undetermined amount of time—probably not all season, but at least a few weeks—after he had surgery Sunday to repair a broken collarbone suffered against the Wildcats. Meanwhile, first-team All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert will miss the rest of the season after suffering a hip injury against Northwestern.
3. In my story on Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver for SI’s college football preview issue, Oliver discussed his decision to announce in April that he would leave school after his junior season and enter the draft. Oliver explained that he didn’t want to be asked about his plans all season. He gave a specific example, saying he only wanted to be interviewed after the Arizona game because he “gave Khalil Tate a nightmare.”
Oliver did just that in Houston’s 45–18 win Saturday. He had five tackles (including half a tackle for loss) and four quarterback hurries. Tate threw for 341 yards, but most of those came when the game was no longer in doubt. Houston led by 38 before Arizona even cracked the scoreboard.
What’s Eating Andy?
When you just broke a streak that started before you were born, celebrate accordingly.
What’s Andy Eating?
A few weeks ago, my friends Ryan McGee and Marty Smith released some groundbreaking journalism. For the first episode of their Marty and McGee show on the SEC Network, they asked one of life’s most important questions to all of the SEC’s coaches: Biscuits or Cornbread?
The correct answer, of course, is biscuits. Biscuits are bread in its finest form.
It’s not that I dislike cornbread. Far from it. I love good cornbread. I even make a mean skillet of cornbread*. The problem, as Alabama’s Nick Saban so astutely pointed out, is the ratio of good biscuits to bad biscuits is much higher than the ratio of good cornbread to bad cornbread.
*My wife asks me to put sugar in the cornbread when I make it, and I do it because I believe all good marriages are based on compromise. Besides, it’s not like she asked me to put sugar in grits. If your spouse does ever ask you to put sugar in grits, take the kids, change all of your names and move somewhere that monster can never find you.
Pretty much the only way to screw up a biscuit is to burn it or leave it too long under a buffet heat lamp (which burns it). Even those biscuits from a tube—Lewis Grizzard called them Whomp Biscuits because you had to whack the tube on the counter to open it—are, objectively speaking, delicious. Great biscuits taste like an angel’s song sounds. But O.K. biscuits still taste pretty amazing.
That isn’t the case with cornbread. When cornbread is done right, it’s an incredible complementary piece to a good meal. It’s especially great with juicy meats and vegetables that give it something to sop up. But O.K. cornbread is barely edible, and bad cornbread might actually choke you.
I knew all of these things to be true when I first watched Ryan and Marty’s piece, but I wound up stumbling into my very own Biscuits vs. Cornbread test on my last visit to Atlanta. I arrived at B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue at 11 a.m. on a Saturday planning to order some ribs and pulled pork and some of the cracklin’ cornbread. In some places, they call these discs of cornbread hoe cakes. I call them cornbread in its finest form. B’s hasn’t been open long, but it has quickly become one of my favorite barbecue joints in the country, and the cornbread is part of the reason why.
But B’s wasn’t serving ribs and pulled pork and cornbread yet. On occasional Saturdays, B’s Cracklin will surprise its customers by opening for breakfast. This means brisket hash and cinnamon rolls and—you guessed it—biscuits. So I figured it was time for an impromptu competition. I would eat my (second) breakfast slowly and then order some cracklin’ cornbread when they flipped the line to lunch. Could these biscuits—the quality of which I didn’t yet know—compete with what might be the best cornbread on the planet?
The biscuits came out light and fluffy. On the size scale, they fell somewhere between the tiny miracles at Atlanta’s Silver Skillet and the biscuit you’d get at Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s. They were exactly the same size as the biscuits my grandmother would serve from her kitchen in Lincolnton, Ga. My grandfather and uncles and cousins would mash up those biscuits with crumbled sausage and then cover the entire plate with King syrup. I never wanted my biscuits to be that sweet, so I just buttered them and popped them in my mouth. The biscuits at B’s came buttered exactly the way I would have buttered them myself. They steamed as I pulled them apart, and each fluffy bite was better than the next.
I alternated between bites of biscuit and that brisket hash, which is the breakout star of the B’s breakfast. Still, I had to save room. I had research to do.
Finally the appointed hour came, and I was presented with my order of cracklin’ cornbread. This is not skillet cornbread. That thick, yellow side dish is the more common iteration of cornbread, and while it is good at its best, it isn’t as versatile as the cornbread cakes that come at a place like B’s Cracklin’ or the Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C. The typical stuff is, as South Carolina coach Will Muschamp put it, only good for sopping up soup. These cakes can sop up liquids. They can be eaten plain. They can be stuffed with pulled pork for the most decadent sandwich ever consumed.
I took my piece of cracklin’ cornbread. I breathed in the salty, sweet aroma. I took a bite. It was delicious. It was glorious. It was ... still not as good as a biscuit.
I had my answer. Then I heard the sound. Could it be? No. Was it? Yes.
BAH GAWD KING, THAT’S BEIGNET’S MUSIC...