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Georgia and Alabama Reinstate SEC Pecking Order, Move Up in Top 10

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In an unreliable world, the Southeastern Conference did its part to re-establish some order Saturday. Georgia once again looked the part of the beast of the SEC East, and Alabama did the same thing in the SEC West.

The Bulldogs punished Auburn, 27-6, in the most anticipated matchup of the weekend. They ran the ball and stuffed the run—and in a throwback to their 2017 script, they might once again have found a reliable (if unspectacular) Georgia native quarterback to manage games that are won in the trenches. Three years ago it was Jake Fromm who unexpectedly stepped into the starting job and never left; this time it could be the regally named Stetson Bennett IV.

Presumptive starter Jamie Newman opted out before the season. Touted freshman D’Wan Mathis started the opener against Arkansas but was pulled after being ineffective. USC transfer J.T. Daniels was medically cleared to play against Auburn but never saw the field. Bennett, meanwhile, was better than steady in his first career start: 17 of 28 for 240 yards and a touchdown.

Is Bennett’s quarterbacking good enough to win the East? Maybe not, given what Kyle Trask is showing so far at Florida. (And don’t sleep on Tennessee, off to a 2-0 start.) But nobody in a traditional “line of scrimmage league” is better in that area than Georgia. The ‘Dogs have won three straight division titles, and they are re-established as the favorite to win a fourth.

Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) escapes the pressure of Auburn Tigers Auburn Tigers linebacker Owen Pappoe (0) during the second half at Sanford Stadium.

Alabama, meanwhile, might be fresh out of challengers in the West. Just two games in, everyone else in the division has a loss. Mississippi State, Flavor of the Week last week after upsetting LSU, flopped in the follow-up game at Arkansas, which brought a 20-game SEC losing streak into Starkville.

While the combo star turn of new Bulldogs coach Mike Leach and new Bulldogs quarterback K.J. Costello abruptly ended, the guy who should have felt worst Saturday is LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. His refusal to back out of press coverage was exploited by Leach last week, and Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom showed the folly of that stubborn strategy by playing a shell coverage that limited big plays and goaded Costello into three interceptions.

If Georgia and Alabama re-established themselves as the teams to beat in their SEC divisions, they also sharpened the focus on their Oct. 17 meeting in Tuscaloosa. Their last two games were in the postseason, and they were doozies: ‘Bama rallied to win in overtime in the College Football Playoff championship game in 2017; then rallied again to win the 2018 SEC championship game. This season, they might just play twice.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 somehow kept losing. A league that has had nothing go right thus far saw its two marquee teams both lose—Texas to TCU and Oklahoma to Iowa State. The Sooners are now 0-2 in the Big 12, something unimaginable for the five-time defending champions. Oklahoma and Texas meet Saturday for what will be one of the least relevant Red River Shootout games in decades.

The Big 12’s only playoff hope now is Oklahoma State, which actually got some help from Tulsa. The Cowboys looked unimpressive in beating the Golden Hurricane a few weeks ago, but then Tulsa took down No. 11 UCF Saturday. That makes the Pokes’ win over them look appreciably better.

1. Alabama

Last game: beat Texas A&M 52-24

Next game: at Mississippi, coached by former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, on Saturday

Mac Jones uncorked the fourth-best passing yardage game in Alabama history against the Aggies, throwing for 435 yards. Even after losing first-round draft picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, the Crimson Tide still have the most explosive receiving corps in the nation. John Metchie caught touchdown receptions of 78 yards early and 63 yards late, and Jaylen Waddle had an 87-yarder in between. If you want a quibble with the Crimson Tide—and Nick Saban will be looking for them—they don’t have much offensive balance yet. ‘Bama has failed to average 4 yards per rush in two games.

2. Clemson

Last game: beat Virginia 41-23

Next game: Miami comes to Clemson Saturday

There was never any doubt that the Tigers were going to beat the Cavaliers Saturday night, but they were not a consistently overpowering machine. Credit to Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who made a lot of plays, but it’s pretty jarring to see the Clemson defense surrender 417 yards of offense—most by an ACC opponent in three years. The fact that the game was competitive most of the night at least allowed Tigers stars Trevor Lawrence (365 yards total offense, four touchdowns) and Travis Etienne (187 yards from scrimmage, two TDs) to play more. The victory was Clemson’s 46th consecutive Saturday win, eclipsing the FBS record held by the 1953-57 Oklahoma Sooners.

3. Georgia

Last game: beat Auburn 27-6

Next game: Tennessee Saturday in Athens

For at least one week, everyone could stop worrying about Bennett IV. The presumptive fourth-string quarterback heading into the season turned his first career start into an easy victory, thanks mostly to the Bulldogs’ trench domination on both sides of the ball. Georgia ran for 202 yards and held Auburn to just 39 rushing yards. (That marks the first time under Gus Malzahn that the Tigers have gone consecutive games without 100 yards rushing.) The ‘Dogs might have the best defense in America.

4. Miami

Last game: beat Florida State 52-10 on Sept. 26

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Next game: at Clemson Saturday

Is The U back? Next week will be the true test. Beating the daylights out of the Seminoles, while gratifying, doesn’t tell us anything definitive. Miami is balanced offensively, able to run and throw, and can make plays defensively (31 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and six takeaways thus far). The Hurricanes will have to do everything well to have a chance in Death Valley.

5. Florida

Last game: beat South Carolina 38-24

Next game: at Texas A&M Saturday

The Gators might not have the raw speed of the Crimson Tide, but their passing attack is every bit as effective. The Kyle Show rolled on against the Gamecocks: Kyle Trask threw for 268 yards and four touchdowns, and tight end Kyle Pitts had four catches for 57 yards and two TDs. That’s six times they’ve connected for six points in two games. Florida certainly hasn’t been great defensively thus far, but it did limit South Carolina’s explosive plays Saturday (just two gains of 20 or more yards from scrimmage).

Florida Gators tight end Kyle Pits (84) signals a first down after making a catch during a game against South Carolina at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville, Fla. Oct. 3, 2020.

6. Notre Dame

Last game: beat South Florida 52-0 on Sept. 19

Next game: Florida State comes to South Bend Saturday

The Fighting Irish were shut down by a COVID-19 outbreak, forcing postponement of their game against Wake Forest. They were fortunate to have an open date this weekend, or they might not have been able to play yet again. The schedule provides an additional break Saturday with the arrival of a pretty lousy Seminoles team, the third of four straight home games to start the season for Notre Dame.

7. BYU

Last game: beat Louisiana Tech 45-14 Friday

Next game: UTSA comes to Provo Saturday

The Cougars recorded their third straight dominant victory, following blowouts of Navy and Troy with a beatdown of previously undefeated Louisiana Tech. Quarterback Zach Wilson keeps adding to his early Heisman Trophy resume, completing 24 of 26 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 43 yards and three more scores. Wilson is completing 84.5 percent of his passes through three games, which is a pretty outrageous number. But give some credit as well to the BYU defense, which thus far is allowing just 2.4 yards per rush and eight points per game.

8. North Carolina

Last game: beat Boston College 26-22

Next game: Virginia Tech comes to Chapel Hill Saturday

The Tar Heels haven’t been dazzling thus far this season—they’ve been frequently penalized and fairly pedestrian offensively despite many returning weapons. But 2-0 is 2-0, and holding off a BC team that had came in 2-0 itself was a good win. (BC’s two-point play for the tie in the final minute went the other way, resulting in two points for the Tar Heels and putting the game away.) The next game certainly looks interesting: the Hokies are 2-0 despite consecutive games without dozens of players. That would be the time for North Carolina to step up and play a complete game.

9. Louisiana

Last game: beat Georgia Southern 20-18 on Sept. 26

Next game: Coastal Carolina comes to Lafayette Saturday

No team gained more without playing than the Ragin’ Cajuns, who saw their season-opening upset of Iowa State collect more credence when the Cyclones took down Oklahoma Saturday night. But a midweek Sun Belt showdown between the Ragin’ Cajuns and Appalachian State was postponed by COVID-19 issues until December. That in turn led to moving up the next game, against fellow unbeaten Coastal Carolina. You could argue that the winner of that game should move to the top of the Big 12 standings, since both teams have scored victories over teams from that league.

10. SMU

Last game: beat Memphis 30-27

Next game: at Tulane Oct. 16

The Mustangs are 4-0 and haven’t trailed for a single second yet this season. But they had to show some grit Saturday, losing a three-touchdown lead against Memphis, losing two key offensive players to injuries, and losing their student section—they were kicked out of the stadium in the first half after failing to follow public health protocols. Chris Naggar kicked the game-winning field goal in the final seconds, and this might now be the best team in the American Athletic Conference.