Alabama is searching for what it deserves
ould Alabama be ranked No. 1? Perspective on that will be much clearer Saturday night once we know how the Crimson Tide fared against the most complete team they've faced so far: Ole Miss.
I can hear the Hotty Toddy cheer reverberating after that last sentence. But don't get carried away, Colonel Black Bear. Most complete doesn't mean best.
Texas A&M is the best team Alabama has faced. That Johnny Manziel plays quarterback for the Aggies makes that the case.
Here's what I mean by complete: Ole Miss has the best combination in all three facets of the game -- offense, defense and special teams.
Virginia Tech has the best defense Alabama has faced, but the Hokies' offense has been abysmal. A&M has the best offense, but its defense is porous. The Crimson Tide can't reasonably expect to win Saturday if they play as poorly as they did on offense against the Hokies or if they give up as many big plays as they did on defense against A&M.
The Rebels have difference-makers who are more than capable of making teams pay for lapses. Running back Jeff Scott is a threat any time he touches the ball. He has been particularly explosive in the fourth quarter. Four of his five runs of 15 yards or longer have come in the final period, including the 75-yard game-winner against Vanderbilt on opening night.
Three players who were highly coveted recruits by Alabama -- OT Laremy Tunsil, safety/nickel back Tony Conner and DE Robert Nkemdiche -- have been outstanding as Ole Miss freshmen. Nkemdiche is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss, but is still looking for his first sack. As if one Nkemdiche isn't enough to worry about, Ole Miss could get big brother Denzel, who injured his knee in the season opener, back for this game as well. He led Ole Miss in tackles last season. Now if all of this seems like searching for a pimple on Kate Upton, it is. That's the way it is when you are Alabama -- college football's supermodel. People look for vulnerabilities in the perceived invincibility.
Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace believes that vulnerability is at cornerback, and the Rebels will put points on the Tide. Maybe they will.
Meanwhile, some in crimson have grown a little weary of hearing how much trouble the Rebels gave their team last year. After all, Alabama won the game by three touchdowns.
Last year, we knew for sure that the Tide deserved to be No. 1. We will have a much better read on the answer to that question this year after Saturday night's test. We will also know if Ole Miss is still building a foundation in the SEC West or if Hugh Freeze's team has taken a giant leap into the contender category.
Ole Miss-Alabama is the SEC undercard to LSU at Georgia. For a team that spent the offseason bemoaning the 5 yards of separation between it and the BCS title game, the Bulldogs will almost certainly be eliminated from the national title scene before October if they don't defend home turf against the LSU team that everybody's talking about.
The stakes are high but there is also a compelling subplot. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is a former Bulldog. Mettenberger's mom, Tammy, is a longtime administrative assistant in the Georgia football office. Coach Mark Richt gave her the week off, saying it would be awkward for her to hang around while the Georgia coaches tried to devise ways to let Leonard Floyd unleash untold mayhem on her son.
Les Miles was sorry to see Richt burn a potential spy, facetiously saying, "We were really kind of hoping that we'd get the call sheet and several of the other key pieces of information."
While we can always count on The Hat for good humor, this will be an emotional and serious night for Mettenberger. He was in a heated battle with Aaron Murray for the starting quarterback position before he was dismissed from the team following a spring break arrest in 2010. (He later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery and was sentenced to probation, fines and community service.)
Mettenberger has displayed remorse, taken responsibility for his behavior and repaired his image. Even so, Mettenberger figures to get an earful when he walks between the hedges Saturday. It won't be a warm, hearty welcome home.
He arrives with the best QBR in the SEC and faces the man who has thrived in the job he once coveted. Murray just passed Peyton Manning and Danny Wuerffel on the SEC's career total offense and passing yardage lists, respectively.
Both can put up numbers, but the biggest factor in my judgment is how well Mettenberger manages his emotions. Nothing will be more important in determining whether LSU can continue its rapid ascension while in the process putting the Bulldogs' BCS title dreams in a ditch.
The nation's longest winning streak belongs to Ohio State at 16 games. In hopes of taking a step toward breaking a different streak, coach Urban Meyer is employing the Ric Flair mantra. "To be the man, you've got to beat the man."
Bucky Badger has been the man in the Big Ten, making three straight Rose Bowl appearances. Meyer may subscribe to the Nature Boy's philosophy, but he's ignoring Wally Pipp. Most quarterbacks who come off the bench and throw 12 touchdown passes in three games would have grabbed the job the way Lou Gehrig snagged the Yankees' first baseman's gig from Pipp.
Kenny Guiton has been outstanding filling in for Braxton Miller. But with Miller's knee healthy enough to go, the Buckeyes appear committed to putting their fate in the hands of the preseason Heisman candidate when Wisconsin comes to town this weekend. Reports from practice this week say Miller has been sharp. Seeing your understudy set school records has a way of making you focus, not to mention heal.
Ohio State allows about 2.6 yards per rush -- or less than a quarter of the ground Badgers running back Melvin Gordon covers every time he touches the ball. Gordon leads the nation in rushing average (156 yards per game), and I believe he is the most explosive of all the great Wisconsin running backs of recent vintage. Gordon has more 20-, 30-, 60- and 70-yard runs than anyone in the country. And he isn't even the starter.
After all, James White is the leading active career rusher in the FBS and averages more than 110 YPG. Both will tote plenty of rock Saturday night.
After last Saturday's nonconference hot garbage, this week delivers a more appetizing matchup in Oklahoma and Notre Dame. History has no real relevance once a game starts, or at least that's what people on the wrong side of it want you to believe, but the Irish have beaten the Sooners nine times in 10 all-time meetings. The Irish sprinted away from a 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter last year to win 30-17. That finish was a lot like the one in Bob Stoops' first season in 1999, when Notre Dame scored the final 21 points in a 34-30 win. Few programs have inflicted more pain on another in so few meetings than the Irish have on the Sooners.
Louis Nix dominated the middle last year, allowing Oklahoma only 15 yards rushing. The Sooners are different on offense this year, though. Blake Bell has taken over and there's more pistol and read-option in the OU attack, but it still has to move the big fella in the middle if it wants to run effectively. That's what I'll be watching.
The SEC has taken some nonconference hits in September. Watch out for UCF Saturday against South Carolina.
QBR is only one stat, but consider this: A strong QBR correlates strongly to a team's chances of winning. For instance, if the quarterback gets a QBR of 92 in a game, based on QB play alone, a team would have a 92 percent chance of winning the game. UCF's Blake Bortles' QBR for the season is 92, about 20 points higher than South Carolina's Connor Shaw.
The difference between Bortles having to go up against Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks D (opponents have just a 47 QBR against them) as opposed to Shaw facing UCF's defense (65 QBR against) may even out the battle somewhat.
This weekend will be a great way to finish September while whetting your appetite for the meat of the season.
Five things to watch in Week 5
Five things we'll be watching in college football on Saturday:
1. Can No. 9 Georgia's defense slow down No. 6 LSU's running game? While much of the attention in Saturday's key SEC game at Sanford Stadium will focus on the quarterback battle between Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, the contest figures to be won in the trenches.
Georgia's defense struggled slowing down opponents' running games until it held North Texas to 7 yards in last week's 45-21 victory. LSU is averaging 221 rushing yards per game, and Jeremy Hill and Terrence Magee are both averaging more than 7.5 yards per carry.
"They're going to try to maul you and break your will physically and create one-on-one matchups with those receivers," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said.
Georgia's running game isn't too bad, either, as the Bulldogs are averaging 213.3 rushing yards. Tailback Todd Gurley ran for 377 yards with four touchdowns in the first four games.
"It will be interesting to see who can run the ball and be successful with it," Richt said. "We like our [tailbacks] and I'm sure they like theirs. I like theirs and I'm sure they like ours, too."
2. Which quarterback will start for No. 4 Ohio State against No. 23 Wisconsin? Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer isn't quite ready to tip his hand, but all signs point toward Braxton Miller returning to the lineup when OSU opens Big Ten play against the Badgers at the Horseshoe on Saturday night.
Miller, who came into the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, has missed each of the past two contests and most of the previous game with a sprained left knee. In his absence, backup Kenny Guiton has thrown 12 touchdown passes, the most by an OSU quarterback in that stretch.
Miller returned to practice this week and chances are we'll see both quarterbacks at some point against Wisconsin.
"Those decisions will be made later in the week," Meyer said during the Big Ten teleconference Tuesday. "I think if [Miller] has a great week of practice, he will [start]. I don't want to name him a starter yet, because I don't know. I want to make sure I'm doing right by Kenny Guiton, so it's more complicated than that."
3. Can No. 1 Alabama's offense find some consistency against No. 21 Ole Miss? Two-time defending BCS national champion Alabama doesn't look nearly as explosive as the past couple of seasons, as injuries and poor offensive line play have plagued the offense. The Crimson Tide were held to only 66 rushing yards in a 31-6 victory over Colorado State last week, their lowest rushing total since 2010. The Tide are averaging only 132 rushing yards, fewest in the SEC, and 370.7 yards of offense, second fewest in the league.
While the Crimson Tide have survived their first three games by scoring touchdowns on defense and special teams, they might not be so fortunate against the upstart Rebels. Ole Miss had two weeks to prepare for Alabama after piling up 449 yards of offense in a 44-23 win at Texas on Sept. 14.
Last year's meeting in Tuscaloosa was a lot closer than expected. Ole Miss handed Alabama its first deficit of the season -- for all of 15 seconds -- and trailed by 13 points going into the fourth quarter before falling 33-14.
4. Will No. 14 Oklahoma's rebuilt defense hold up against No. 22 Notre Dame? In defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' second season back at OU, the Sooners look like one of the most-improved defensive teams in the country, allowing only 291.3 yards of offense and 100.7 rushing yards per game. Of course, the Sooners played Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa to start the season, so their defense will step up in competition at Notre Dame on Saturday.
The Fighting Irish have been pretty one-dimensional on offense so far; they haven't topped 100 rushing yards since their opener against Temple. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has used a tailback-by-committee approach, as Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle haven't emerged as an every-down back.
Irish quarterback Tommy Rees is averaging a whopping 35.2 pass attempts per game, completing 56 percent for 1,111 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
5. Can No. 16 Washington keep its frenetic pace going? Thanks to its new-look, hurry-up spread offense, Washington is off to its best start in 12 years with a 3-0 record. We're about to find out how good the Huskies really are over the next month, starting with Saturday night's home game against undefeated Arizona.
After hosting the Wildcats, UW plays at No. 5 Stanford on Oct. 5, hosts No. 2 Oregon and plays at Arizona State. UW ranks in the top 20 nationally in total offense (629 yards), passing (325.3 yards), rushing (303.7 yards), scoring (42.7 points) and scoring defense (10 points).
"This is the beginning of our making the run to the championship or to the Rose Bowl, so we know this is our first obstacle and hopefully we can first handle it," Huskies quarterback Keith Price said.
TV GUIDE / #HASHTAGS
Picks of the week
What to watch in Week 5
Click below to see what our reporters think you should be watching for in each conference this weekend.
The ACC has looked as good as it ever has so far this season. A few conference matchups will determine if the trend keeps pointing in the upward direction. ACC
It's up to Oklahoma to really represent for the Big 12 in the nonconference part of the schedule when it heads to South Bend this weekend. Big 12
Ohio State's quarterback situation is obviously under the microscope, but the running games for both the Buckeyes and Badgers should be the story. Big Ten
The Pac-12 was happy with how the nonconference slate played out for the most part, but now the league's elite will take on each other. Pac-12
It's East versus West when LSU and Georgia meet in Athens. Regardless of how well the Dawgs have played so far, this is a must-win if they have hopes of making it to Atlanta. SEC
Upset Watch: Wisconsin-OSU
Picking the winners