by Chad Peltier
We need to talk about Alabama. Yes, this was a week where nine ranked teams lost, but it's high time that we discuss what's happening in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama played their toughest test of the season against LSU -- a matchup of the first- and third-ranked teams in the College Football Playoff standings -- and managed to shut them out 29-0. It was tied for their best performance to date, with an S&P+ postgame win expectancy of 100 percent, a +42.5 adjusted scoring margin, and a 97 percent performance overall.
The scary thing here is that Alabama did that against LSU, which has by far the best secondary the Crimson Tide have seen this season, making Tua Tagovailoa look at least a little mortal. Tagovailoa completed 60 percent of his passes for just 6.7 yards per attempt (including sacks), including just a 47 percent completion rate on passing downs, and he threw his first interception of the year. So the Tide running backs, Damien Harris and Najee Harris, stepped up: 25 rush attempts, 190 yards, 63 and 83 percent success rates, and 5.3 and 11.2 highlight yards per opportunity, respectively. Both were the top running backs in their respective recruiting classes, if you needed a reminder (which is fair; Tagovailoa and the passing game have somehow overshadowed the fourth-ranked S&P+ rushing attack).
But even with just a "really good" performance from Tagovailoa, the Tide had a 21 percent success rate margin over LSU, holding the Tigers to just 26 percent for the game. It was really a vintage Tide defensive performance, with LSU getting just a 13 percent rushing success rate and 19 (!) total rushing yards from its running backs on 13 carries. For comparison, Georgia allowed LSU's two backs to run for 209 yards on 35 carries.
To show just how dominant Alabama looks, Alabama will face the 11th- and 15th-ranked S&P+ teams over the next three weeks (Mississippi State and Auburn), but is projected as 17.8- and 20.4-point S&P+ favorites anyway. It's fair to question whether anyone in the country has above a 30 percent shot or so to knock off the Tide.
Speaking of which, here's all you really need to know about how the Georgia-Kentucky SEC East "championship game" went:
- Georgia's rushing: 54 percent success rate, 8.9 highlight yards per opportunity, with both Elijah Holyfield and D'Andre Swift crossing 100 yards.
- Kentucky's rushing: 42 percent success rate, 2.1 highlight yards per opportunity, with Benny Snell totaling 73 yards on 20 carries (3.7 yards per rush).
- Kentucky's Josh Allen, who is second in the country in sacks, didn't record any, or any other tackles for loss, against Georgia's offensive line.
All in all, Georgia's offense managed to create a scoring opportunity on eight of its ten offensive possessions. Georgia ran the ball incredibly effectively, nullified a fierce pass rush, and denied Kentucky offensive consistency by limiting Benny Snell. And that's despite the offensive line suffering a rash of injuries, including to their starting center and right guard (who was already filling in for another injured starter).
Georgia and Alabama have now locked up their spots in the SEC Championship Game, the earliest in the season that the matchup has been decided.
Next in our playoff-caliber team rundown is Michigan, which had a dominant win over Penn State. As Bill Connelly wrote, almost nobody beats Penn State like Michigan did. Don Brown's defense is as dominant as ever -- rivaling Alabama's for the best in the country -- and held Penn State to a 22 percent offensive success rate. They forced three turnovers: one pick-six, another interception that gave the Wolverines the ball on the Penn State 12-yard line, and a fumble that gave Michigan the ball in Nittany Lions territory.
Combining that kind of elite defensive performance with a steady rushing performance from Karan Higdon (50 percent success rate, 6.6 yards per carry, 7.9 highlight yards per opportunity) is hard to beat. Shea Patterson hasn't had to do much this season, and he attempted just 17 passes.
Finally, West Virginia managed a last-minute score and two-point conversion to hand Texas their third loss of the season despite just a 41 percent S&P+ postgame win expectancy. The game was back-and-forth with five lead changes until West Virginia scored with 16 seconds left. The touchdown itself was a beautiful throw on the run, with Gary Jennings Jr. catching the pass in the back of the end zone. Dana Holgorsen then opted to go for two instead of kicking to tie the game, and didn't change his decision despite two timeouts from the Longhorns, including one that negated a successful pass to David Sills V. According to ESPN, Holgorsen casually asked Will Grier, "Hey, you want to win the game?" which is exactly as nonchalant as I'd hope he'd be in a critical moment for the Mountaineers' season.
- As mentioned above, nine ranked teams lost this week, but most of them were either in ranked-on-ranked matchups, which were mostly covered above, or were at the back end of the top 25. That group includes Pitt knocking off Virginia behind Darrin Hall's 229 rushing yards, improbably putting the Panthers in front of the ACC Coastal. Speaking of messy division races, just when Utah looked like the top of the Pac-12 South, they go and lose to Arizona State, with quarterback Tyler Huntley breaking his collarbone in the loss. The Utes have tiebreakers over Arizona and USC, their divisional co-leaders, but play Oregon next week. Almost any team could still win the Pac-12 South at this point. More divisional messiness: Purdue upset Iowa with a game-winning field goal, meaning that the Boilermakers are tied with the Badgers one game behind Northwestern. Northwestern has the tiebreakers over both teams, but faces Iowa next. Given that Minnesota and Illinois are left after that, odds are that 5-4 Northwestern, with losses to Duke and Akron, will represent the Big Ten West in the championship. The Wildcats did lose to Michigan by just a field goal, so a potential Big Ten Championship rematch could theoretically send Northwestern to the Rose Bowl even with an 8-5 record.
- Clemson, like usual, probably has the best chance of anybody to dethrone Alabama this season, largely because they've got an elite, but young, quarterback. But it was the Tigers run game that was largely responsible for their 77-16 demolition of Louisville. No Clemson running back had more than eight carries, but they totaled 492 rushing yards, with three backs crossing the 100-yard mark. Five players had runs of 25-plus yards, and 79 percent of their runs gained at least 4 yards.
- Auburn managed a comeback win over Texas A&M thanks to a 14-point fourth quarter. The Tigers had been anemic all game, with success rates of 20, 35, and 13 percent through the first three quarters, but somehow put together a 63 percent success rate fourth quarter thanks largely to big passes from Jarrett Stidham (including four passes over 14 yards). Auburn still has no run game to speak of, totaling just 36 non-sack yards on 17 carries (28 percent success rate).
- Darrin Hall, RB, Pittsburgh. This year's Virginia team is a lot like Bronco Mendenhall's BYU teams in previous years -- solid defense, inefficient offense, and great field position. That got the Cavaliers to 6-2, but Pitt's Darrin Hall almost single-handedly knocked Virginia out of the rankings. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett had just 61 passing yards and a 6 percent passing success rate, but Darrin Hall ran for 229 yards on 19 carries, with a 68 percent success rate and 12.0 highlight yards per opportunity. That's nuts -- even when Virginia, which has a solid defense, knew what was coming, they couldn't stop Hall.
- Sam Pittman, OL Coach, Georgia. As mentioned above, Georgia had two interior offensive linemen get knocked out of the Kentucky game after losing a starting guard earlier in the season as well. Even playing a line with just one upperclassman for most of the game, Georgia managed a 54 percent rushing success rate against Kentucky, which had been one of the best rushing defenses in the country heading in to the game. Despite multiple injuries, Georgia's offensive line seems to get better each week. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman deserves a ton of credit for developing these guys, although it helps that he has a ton of blue-chip talent to insert in injured guys' places.
- Quinnen Williams, DL, Alabama. Quinnen Williams completely blew up any chance that LSU had of a consistent offensive effort against the Tide. He was responsible for a team-high 8.5 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks in an absolutely dominant effort.