Dominant Alabama leads the ‘SEC Revelations’ for Week 10
Here are five “SEC Revelations” from the Week 10 slate of action, a jam-packed countdown which couldn’t, in great detail, find time to celebrate Auburn’s modern-day spin on the old “Fumblerooskie” play or Tennessee’s happy reversal of fortune during crunch time. There will also be no mention of Missouri’s headline-grabbing weekend away from the field — a topic that was singularly addressed on Sunday.
1. Alabama’s systematic domination of LSU was equal parts exhilarating and predictable
In one regard, Alabama has become the Florida State of the 1990s or USC of the 2000s, as in the Crimson Tide can absorb a relatively early loss during the regular season … and still be viewed as prohibitive favorites for the national championship.
It’s a testament to Nick Saban’s incredible work with the Crimson Tide program, attracting blue-chip talent to Tuscaloosa, Ala. year after year, while maintaining a laser-like focus on “the process” of winning, week after week.
That superb combination reaped rewards again Saturday night, with Alabama knocking off No. 2 LSU by 14 points. But don’t let the close score fool you. The Tide enjoyed decisive advantages with total yards (434-182), time of possession (nearly 2-to-1 ratio), first downs (28-12) and rushing yards (250-54).
That last stat is particularly galling, since LSU houses the current Heisman Trophy front-runner (Leonard Fournette — at least 150 yards rushing in his first seven games) and two of the best offensive line prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft (Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins). But once again, Fournette’s pedestrian outing (31 rushing yards, one TD) was a dual endorsement of Saban’s coaching acumen and a fast, physical and deep Crimson Tide defensive line that’s second to none.
Of course, you cannot tell the story of Alabama’s runaway victory without extolling the virtues of Derrick Henry, who shredded the Tigers for 210 yards and three touchdowns — his third three-TD outing of 2015. What’s more, the junior tailback has found the end zone in every game this season (similar to Fournette).
How good was Henry? He trounced Fournette in total yardage by nearly a 7-to-1 ratio … and only required double the touches to do so. Digging deeper, Henry had more combined touches (38) than every Tide playmaker, with no other Alabama offensive player scoring against the Tigers.
In short, it was a Heisman-type showcase for Henry. It was also a four-hour infomercial detailing No. 4 Alabama’s candidacy for the No. 1 slot in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, potentially unseating Clemson (Saturday victors over Florida State) for the top spot.
That would be a major leap for the Crimson Tide (8-1, 5-1 in SEC), factoring in how Clemson, Ohio State and Baylor remain undefeated; but it also speaks to the Fear Factor aura of the program, namely how convincing victories over three top-10 programs (LSU, UGA, Texas A&M at the time of the meetings) carry greater weight than a single September setback against Ole Miss.
2. ESPN owes the Crimson Tide defense a debt of gratitude for spicing up next month’s Heisman Trophy ceremony
Last week, a national radio host hailed the current Heisman battle as one of the “most boring” races in recent memory, declaring LSU’s Fournette as the easy winner — regardless of the Alabama result.
He then exacerbated his point on the air, challenging the bank of national callers to name the Baylor receiver “who keeps scoring all the touchdowns.”
That Baylor wideout, Corey Coleman, has already accounted for 58 catches, 1,178 yards and 20 touchdowns — highlighted by an incredible streak of seven straight games with multiple touchdowns; and heading into last weekend’s action, a robust number of prominent media sites had Coleman listed as a top-2 or top-3 pick for the Heisman.
And yet, Coleman hardly stands as a household name in large pockets of the country. Even though he stars on a national championship contender, anchors the highest-scoring offense in college football (57.4 points per game) and has a reasonable shot at breaking the NCAA single-season record for receiving touchdowns (27 — Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 2008).
But let’s be clear: The above paragraph might have been moot to write today … if Fournette had dominated Alabama on Saturday.
Instead, opportunity knocks for the second wave of Heisman hopefuls — including Coleman (high-profile clashes with TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on the horizon), Derrick Henry (210 rushing yards, three TDs against LSU), Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State’s offensive savior) and quarterback supernovas Trevone Boykin (TCU) and Deshaun Watson (Clemson).
In fairness to Fournette (1,383 rushing yards, 16 TDs through eight games), one bad night at the office shouldn’t obliterate a front-runner’s Heisman campaign. Past precedent dictates this to be true. But he did squander a chance to eliminate all doubt for the nation’s most prestigious individual award.
3. The College Football Playoff committee likely won’t rush to Florida’s defense this week, just days after the close-shave win over Vanderbilt
From a national prism, it’s hard to view the Gators’ 9-7 victory in a favorable light.
How can the newly minted SEC East champs need a late field goal at home to beat a Vandy squad that lost 34-0 just one week ago (to 18th-ranked Houston)? And looking ahead to Dec. 5, would Florida even be favored against the West champion — either Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State or even Arkansas? (OK, slight exaggeration.)
The larger point: The Gators have been all over the map in their first season under head coach Jim McElwain. A narrow, offensively challenged victory over Kentucky (conference opener). An epic comeback win against Tennessee, made famous by Vols coach Butch Jones’s math gaffe (never kick the extra point when leading late by 12). A thorough rout of then-No. 3 Ole Miss (Will Grier’s finest hour as the Florida starting quarterback). A sluggish ‘revenge’ triumph against Missouri, right before an emotionally taxing road defeat to LSU; and finally, the forgettable Vandy victory.
The one constant throughout the Gators’ season — a cat-quick and highly versatile defense. It’s also the reason why few Florida fans actually feared losing to Vandy on Saturday, despite trailing with two minutes left. Take away Ralph Webb’s 74-yard touchdown run … and the Commodores accounted for just 101 total yards the other 59 minutes, 48 seconds of game action.
That sets the stage for Tuesday’s Playoff rankings release: With No. 7 Michigan State and No. 8 TCU falling from the unbeaten ranks last weekend, on paper, No. 10 Florida seems like a lock to conservatively rise two spots.
However, the Vanderbilt win may ultimately resonate like a loss, from the committee’s perspective, allowing for No. 11 Stanford (perfect Pac-12 record), No. 14 Oklahoma State (Saturday thumping of TCU) or No. 15 Oklahoma to leapfrog the Gators.
By extension, it would eventually lead to the odd scenario of Florida fans praying for Alabama to claim the SEC West title, knowing that only a signature conference-title victory against the Tide could justify a monumental leap in the final Playoff rankings (Dec. 8).
4. Don’t fall asleep on Mississippi State’s chances of capturing the SEC West title
It’s reasonable to assume Alabama — which could vault to the No. 1 spot in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings — will be prohibitive favorites against Mississippi State (Saturday), Charleston Southern (Nov. 21), Auburn (Nov. 28) and then Florida in the SEC title game (Dec. 5).
It’s also easy to predict that Nick Saban will go viral in roughly 11 days, taking demonstrative exception to any press-conference question presuming an SEC championship for his program.
That’s how the master motivator rolls in mid-November … and everyone in the media happily accepts it.
But let’s flip the script here: What if Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2 SEC) pulls off a landmark upset on Saturday, evoking memories of the Bulldogs’ 1980 shakedown of iconic coach Bear Bryant and the Tide, who were riding a 28-game winning streak heading into that November day in Jackson, Miss.? (The final: A run-heavy-era score of 6-3.)
And what if quarterback Dak Prescott (2,769 total yards, 25 total TDs, 1 INT) exclusively carries Mississippi State on his back to victory? Could one transcendent outing trump a season-long existence of flying below the Heisman radar, often deferring to front-runners like Fournette, Boykin, Derrick Henry, Elliot, Coleman, Christian McCaffrey (Stanford tailback) and Deshaun Watson?
After all, if the power of one middling performance against Alabama can potentially derail Fournette’s Heisman campaign … wouldn’t the reverse be true, as well?
Back to Mississippi State: It might have been fun for the season’s first two months, playing a respectable schedule without any external pressure of preserving a top-5 or even No. 1 ranking (like last year). But the Ole Miss defeat from Saturday changed everything inside the Magnolia State, shifting the We Control Our Own Destiny rationalizations from Oxford to Starkville.
But none of this matters if Mississippi State doesn’t break its seven-year losing skid against Alabama; and that’s a tough pill to swallow for some fans, considering the Bulldogs have had the good fortune of playing the Crimson Tide immediately after LSU seven times since 2007 — otherwise known as the “trap game” slot. (Cue Admiral Akbar.)
5. Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry could split the atom on Tuesday; and the top of his Wikipedia page on Wednesday would still prioritize the ‘fourth-and-25’ miracle play
The above statement doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, especially in the Deep South. Henry’s quick-thinking response on the Hogs’ final drive of regulation — wildly tossing back a completed pass on fourth down, on the last-gasp hope that someone (tailback Alex Collins) would recover the ball and run for the first down — was the stuff of legends.
In fact, it might have been the SEC’s most heads-up desperation play of the last 40 years, with few rivals in that category. You see, a more stubborn tight end would have fought valiantly for the seven necessary yards to get the first down. Instead, Henry (six catches, 60 yards on Saturday) blindly whipped the ball back to the passing-pocket scrum, setting the stage for the ugliest of hook-and-ladder plays.
But thankfully for the Razorbacks … it was also the most memorable of that trick-play genre.
Of course, Henry’s moment of fame might have lost some long-term luster if Arkansas had fallen to Ole Miss in regulation or overtime. But the Rebels kept the Hogs’ dream alive with a horribly timed “facemask” penalty on Arkansas’ first two-point attempt; and they might have been too gassed to stop the second two-point try, capping the Razorbacks’ road shocker.
Which brings us to this: What possessed Bret Bielema to go for the first two-pointer? The rules of overtime — which oblige teams to attempt a two-point conversion during the third overtime (and beyond) — basically spare head coaches the agony of “1” or “2” in the early going of extra time. And yet, the Arkansas coach felt compelled to end the game for better or worse — twice — without a whisper of indecision.
Well, Bielema’s risk-reward conundrum worked wonders for the Razorbacks; and now, it’ll take a miracle for the Rebels (7-3, 4-2 SEC) — who controlled the SEC West race just 72 hours ago — to snag the division title.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.