Sports

Alabama loses, Kentucky wins and more


Amid his deep exhales of frustration, Nick Saban captured our elation.

Amid his pointed messaging to his team, Saban spoke to all of us.

Amid his motivational machinations, he captured the essence of a searingly delightful day of college football.

“Everyone needs to remember how they feel and not forget it,” Saban said.

That’s easy, of course, if you didn’t have an emotional investment in any of the results. For those unencumbered by coaching duties, alma mater loyalties and financial ties to the results, it was day of chaos we’ll never forget.

Saban is right. We’ll all remember watching No. 1 Alabama look like Keystone Cops in the waning minutes of a 41-38 loss at unranked Texas A&M. We’ll remember a critical dropped pass by Bama tight end Jahleel Billingsley, and the Tide bumbling through a final defensive drive with defenders crashing into one another and a critical pass interference penalty by DeMarcco Hellam. That enabled a 28-yard chip-shot game winner, which unleashed the Kyle Fields denizens to pour out onto the field.

And that feeling, of course, provided the crescendo of a wild day highlighted by extremes — Alabama’s 19-game winning streak ending and UMass’ 16-game losing streak ending. All around, insanity ruled the day – Iowa punted to win, Arkansas gambled and lost, Oklahoma delivered erased a historic 21-point deficit and Michigan ripped loose both the ball – and likely the Scott Frost era – in the waning moments of a gutty win.

There was more, so much more. Coach O’s LSU tenure has nosedived past the point of potential recovery, Cincinnati has further positioned itself for the College Football Playoff and No. 10 BYU bowed out of the College Football Playoff race. The Big Ten’s banner season could feature five teams ranked in the top 10 for the first time in the league’s history. The quarterback who began the year as a Heisman favorite, OU’s Spencer Rattler, will likely lose his job to transcendent freshman Caleb Williams. Heck, USC lost its third consecutive Pac-12 game at home and no one even noticed.

But Saturday’s feelings – the one Saban and we all can’t forget – started in College Station. Consider all that crumbled with the loss.

Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on from the sideline during a game between the Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 9, 2021. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on from the sideline during a game between the Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 9, 2021. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Alabama lost for the first time since 2019, and it strapped a string of historic streaks. The Tide lost to an unranked opponent for the first time in 100 games and became the first No. 1 team to lose to an unranked opponent since 2008 when Oregon State beat USC. Nick Saban also lost for the first time to a former assistant, snapping a string of 24 victories over the young Jedis who he taught the Force.

What do we make off all this chaos? For Alabama, the loss is a sign of the Tide’s mortality. This Alabama team isn’t nearly the crew we’ve seen in recent seasons – inexperienced at quarterback, relatively pedestrian at tailback and the wide receiving crew is solid but lacking the multiple first rounders that left opposing coordinators so helpless in recent years.

Amid Saban’s disappointment and the roll calls of mistakes, he also cut to the core of what this day of craziness could end up meaning: “We still can accomplish everything we want to accomplish.”

Saban is right, of course. It’s more unusual for college football national champions to go undefeated than it is for them to have a loss. And here’s an idea that will make leadership squirm in the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and AAC offices – we have to at least ponder the possibility of two-loss Alabama reaching the College Football Playoff.

We’ve compared this gleefully unpredictable season to 2007 a few times, and it’s worth noting that LSU lost two regular season games before being one of two teams to reach the Bowl Championship Series title game. Imagine two-loss Bama – assuming they win out until the SEC title game against Georgia – going up against one-loss Iowa, undefeated Cincinnati or one-loss Oregon. Considering the brand bias that the College Football Playoff has shown, don’t be surprised if that’s at least a heavy conversation, if not an overt reality.

The mistakes for Alabama appeared correctable. They moved the ball well against Mike Elko’s defense, but sputtered in the red zone. Three times in the red zone, Alabama settled for a field goal. Another drive ended when Bryce Young got picked off by Texas A&M’s Demani Richardson, who deftly tipped the ball to himself.

That left Saban with this blunt message to clear out any lingering rat poison: “Think about two things — how you feel when you lose and what did you do to contribute to losing.”

Texas A&M’s win came after an inexplicable loss to Mississippi State last week and amid a generally sluggish run of play for the Aggies. They’d lost to Arkansas the week before, and reserve quarterback Zach Calzada transformed from a limited liability to a dynamic giant killer. He finished with 285 passing yards, and the final of his three touchdown passes – a 25-yard lob to Ainias Smith – tied the game. He also emerged from the injury tent after appearing to injure his knee to seal the game late in the fourth quarter, which will certainly live on in Texas A&M lore.

That all fueled to the wondrous insanity of a day that no other sport can match for its noon-to-last-call intensity and unpredictability in the regular season.

And while Saban wants his team to it remember as fuel, we’ll hold onto the day as an appreciation of the potential of what can happen on a college football Saturday.

LSU’s spiral continues

We covered LSU’s free fall under Ed Orgeron earlier this week, as it’s looming as an inevitability that this will be his final season in Baton Rouge. Athletic director Scott Woodward’s coaching search research will go into overdrive this week, as LSU got waxed at Kentucky, 42-21.

Orgeron’s answers for the program’s issues in the wake of a 5-5 season have only begged more questions, as he appears to have flopped with his coordinator hires on both sides of the ball. The tenor of this one will haunt LSU fans, as No. 16 Kentucky pushed around LSU on both sides of the ball. Kentucky physically dominated the lines of scrimmage, which speaks to an effort issue as much as a scheme issue. That shouldn’t happen to LSU against anyone, never mind Kentucky.

Kentucky also showed that it made the savvier offseason offensive coordinator hire, as Liam Coen looked a step ahead of the LSU defense. Meanwhile, LSU got shut out in the first half and needed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to avoid complete embarrassment.

LSU is 3-3 and could well finish last in the hyper-competitive SEC West. LSU’s upcoming schedule is a home game with Florida followed by road trips to No. 17 Ole Miss and then a bye week before playing at Alabama.

The bad news for LSU is that there’s no obvious interim on staff if LSU were to make a mid-year move on Orgeron. The good news for Woodward is that he’ll have plenty of time to vet candidates, as the result is even more apparent than after the meltdown against Auburn last week.

LSU Tigers coach Ed Orgeron during the college football game between the LSU Tigers and the UCLA Bruins on Sept. 04. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LSU Tigers coach Ed Orgeron during the college football game between the LSU Tigers and the UCLA Bruins on Sept. 04. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Another big day for Cincinnati

Luke Fickell spent a rare of Saturday shuttling around southern Ohio to his kids’ sporting events. Fickell is bracing for another historic week at Cincinnati, as the Bearcats are a strong candidate to host ESPN’s Gameday program for the first time in school history. Cincinnati will host UCF on ABC next week, a craftily scheduled game on a quiet week in the sport.

So with the upset of Notre Dame in their rearview and a new level of attention on the potential College Football Playoff crashers, Fickell spent his off-day thrilled with how No. 5 Cincinnati has handled the rare air the program has climbed to.

No. 5 Cincinnati blasted Temple, 52-3, on Friday night. Nippert Stadium jumped for the arrival of an ACC cellar dweller the same way it would have greeted a top-10 foe. Fickell marveled at both the enthusiasm of the crowd – “definitely a buzz” – and how his team didn’t flinch at its new heights.

“That was the big thing this past week,” Fickell said by phone on Saturday. “To see what kind of maturity that we had. To be able to handle all the things going on and still do our job. That’s what I was worried about all week. Our guys did a really good job.”

The Temple blowout showcased a program that’s evolved to the point where it’s distanced itself from being branded as solely having a defensive identity. Cincinnati is averaging 41.0 points per game, good for the No. 8 offense in college football. (This is before the statistics from Saturday shook out.) The Bearcats have allowed 12.2 points per game, the No. 4 scoring defense.

Fickell attributes the offensive evolution to the staff’s ability to find and develop players around star quarterback Desmond Ridder. On Friday, that manifested with Jerome Ford rushing for 149 yards, Alec Pierce catching six passes for 93 yards and 6-foot-7 tight end Josh Whyle snaring two passes for 30 yards.

“I don’t know we had the pieces to help the QB grow,” Fickell said, comparing this home matchup with UCF to two years ago. “That to me is as much of the growth of Desmond Ridder is the growth of being able to put some of those pieces around him. That has been really key. Guys who can make things happen and make big plays and make quarterback look better.”

On Saturday, Cincinnati will enter a game against UCF with a stage to show just how explosive the offense has become.

Punt on the jokes

Iowa’s 23-20 victory over Penn State formally announced the Hawkeyes as a favorite to reach the College Football Playoff. The Hawkeyes won with a familiar formula – ball control, field position and a salty defense that changed the game when star linebacker Jack Campbell knocked quarterback Sean Clifford out of the game.

Iowa proceeded to erase a 17-3 lead, with perhaps the day’s most consistent play coming from punter Tory Taylor. He pinned Penn State inside the 10-yard line five times, which set up three interceptions, a three-and-out and a four-and-out to end the game in the final minute.

Iowa clawed back into the game after quarterback Spencer Petras shook off a tough start. He finished 17-for-31 with two touchdowns, including a 44-yard strike to Nico Ragaini on a nifty play-action-rollout-throwback call by coordinator Brian Ferentz.

Iowa’s formula of ball control and exploiting the opposition’s mistakes may not be sexy, but it’s hard to argue the effectiveness. Penn State coaches accelerated the Iowa comeback by failing to adjust to the crowd noise, as the Nittany Lions offense retreated all night until it finally figured out a silent count solution. It’s almost as if Penn State didn’t expect Kinnick Stadium to be loud. PSU finished with 10 penalties for 59 yards, including four false starts in the second quarter and four in the fourth quarter. At one point in the second quarter, Penn State suffered false starts on a mind-bending three consecutive snaps.

Iowa was sound, prepared and stayed defiant to its Ferentzian ideology. And that leaves the Hawkeyes as the best of the rest in college football, the top performing non-SEC team so far in the 2021 season.

Red River comeback

No. 6 Oklahoma became the first team to ever come back from 21 points down and beat Texas. They’ve been playing football at Texas since 1902, and there’s been plenty of heartbreak in the century since then.

But that wasn’t the most remarkable development of the day. OU quarterback Spencer Rattler, the presumptive Heisman favorite, projected (by some) No. 1 draft pick and one of the offseason NIL champions appears in danger of losing his starting job for good. Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams provided such a memorable relief appearance to lead the three-touchdown comeback that his emergence as Oklahoma’s quarterback of the future may end up overshadowing the magnitude of OU’s historic comeback.

Williams’ first snap of the game – on a fourth-and-1 play to start the second quarter – ended with a 66-yard touchdown run. The image of him sprinting down the field may be a defining one in OU lore, as he appeared to be running away from Rattler and into a new paradigm for the program. Or, perhaps, an old one considering the lineage of high-end quarterbacks under Lincoln Riley.

Rattler got benched for the second consecutive Red River game, and this time he doesn’t appear likely to get up. Williams threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns, including a step-up-in-the-pocket 52-yard beauty to Marvin Mims. He also flashed a poise that belies his age, which is something that Rattler hasn’t shown consistently. Williams arrived at OU as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the class, and it’s more likely he unseats Rattler and sends him to the Transfer Portal than him retreating back to the bench.

The parlor game of where Rattler could transfer already began on Saturday afternoon. Georgia? UCLA? Washington? Arizona State? Arizona? Miami? Notre Dame? Texas A&M? Tennessee? Penn State? (It’s hard to imagine the high-end NFL interest still being pronounced.)

This is a microcosm of where football is heading. Find a stage, stake your spot and then move on if you lose it.

After Williams entered the game down 28-7 and delivered a historic comeback, it’s up to Rattler to author a comeback of his own. And that’s a bigger deal than OU upstaging Texas on the Red River stage today.

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