Alabama's bye last week gave the college football world a chance to assess the rest of the field in the running for a national championship. This week, the Crimson Tide reminded everyone why they're No. 1 in all the rankings.
Alabama threw a 21-0 haymaker at Missouri in the first quarter of what turned into a 42-10 rout, and did it like this: Eddie Lacy raced 73 yards to the end zone on the first offensive play of the game; the Tide's defense forced a three-and-out, picked off a pass, and allowed 36 yards in the period; Alabama blocked a punt; the Tide rolled up 199 yards and three rushing touchdowns on just 16 plays.
Lightning interceded after that, and likely helped stop a blowout of massive proportions: after the weather delay, Alabama allowed a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown, fumbled twice, and screwed up a punt, all in the second quarter. But Lacy (177 rushing yards and three touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (144 yards and two scores) both got their numbers, and the Tide's passing game produced five plays of 15 or more yards in its first outing without DeAndrew White. A.J. McCarron still hasn't thrown an interception, and the Tide's defense still hasn't allowed more than the 14 points or 269 yards it gave up to Michigan in the season opener, mostly in the second half.
And yet, there's good reason to believe Alabama still hasn't been tested: Michigan, after all, was held to fewer points and fewer yards per play by Notre Dame in a game much closer to home for the Wolverines, and Alabama's two SEC road games at Arkansas and Missouri have come with those teams starting their backup quarterbacks. Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic were no match for Alabama, and shouldn't have been, but Mississippi gave Alabama its only deficit of the season and hung around until the fourth quarter. The Tide's defense makes a clean sweep of five top spots in defensive categories, but the best offense Alabama has played is Michigan's, by far, and Denard Robinson has never been very good against a great defense.
None of those Alabama foes looks remotely elite now, and even the games of the next four weeks, Alabama's toughest stretch, don't look like much more than a series of speed bumps. Tennessee will be fired up in Neyland, but the Vols aren't in the same talent echelon; Mississippi State hasn't beaten an elite team in years; LSU has all sorts of offensive issues; Texas A&M's defense envies the resilience of tissue paper. The Tigers dumping South Carolina from the ranks of the unbeaten on Saturday could help Alabama's optics – beating a top-10 LSU team at Tiger Stadium is just as hard as beating two-loss LSU at Tiger Stadium, but the benefit's greater – but it's likely that no team Alabama plays this regular season will finish in the top 15 of the BCS rankings.
And so we must wait for clarity. Are we seeing a great team devastating its schedule with impunity, or a very good one with the good fortune to exist in a down year for college football? We may not know until Alabama goes 14-0 – if, that is, Alabama goes 14-0.
Oregon will hold the No. 2 spot in polls this week by virtue of the Ducks remaining idle as ranked teams around them scrapped (and failed) to stay undefeated. The identity of the second-best team in America seems uncertain at best, however.
Pick Oregon, and you get to use "high-octane" a lot in talking about your team. The Ducks still have the nation's most exciting offense, and seem as proficient with the quick strikes as ever with Marcus Mariota leading the offense and deploying Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas as he sees fit. The use of bruising tight end Colt Lyerla in both the passing and running games gives Oregon a "big back" in a sense, one they didn't even necessarily have when LeGarrette Blount was thumping defenders, and the development of a fleet-footed defense that can spin turnovers into touchdowns in a blink makes Oregon lethal on both sides of the ball. But the Ducks have dazzled against teams no better than Arizona, and have played outside the Autzen Zoo once; their toughest tests are still ahead.
Florida has a tough test this weekend in Gainesville against South Carolina, but the Gators have been scoring somewhere from A-minus to B and limiting their opponent to a C on every one so far, which has been enough to rise to 6-0 after a rough slate of games. Florida added another win against Vanderbilt on Saturday, as Jeff Driskel burned the Commodores for three touchdowns out of the zone read and ran for 177 yards, breaking Tim Tebow's school record for rushing yards by a quarterback. But Driskel's ground gains on Saturday outstripped his passing yardage from the last two Florida games (138 yards) combined, and the defense that was nigh impregnable against LSU gave up big plays to a seemingly lesser Vanderbilt squad. No team has a C.V. as impressive on paper as Florida's, given that the Gators have three road wins and five SEC wins, are the only crew to even slow down Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, and completely shut down LSU, but one wonders what happens when Will Muschamp's squad needs an A+ game.
Notre Dame's had to go to the well for A+ defensive efforts all year, on the other hand: That's what happens when your quarterbacks are Everett Golson and Tommy Rees. But Manti Te'o's band of brothers seems capable of churning them out, and gave another virtuoso performance on Saturday against Stanford. The four consective stonings of Stepfan Taylor in overtime from their own 4 and in will be "The Stand" if there's a movie or a Tom Rinaldi feature, and people will forget that Taylor maybe actually scored on the last try. It seems likely that people will also forget that Notre Dame hasn't scored more than 20 points against teams that aren't Navy (51st in scoring defense) or Miami (103rd) until the defense dips to a mere A and the Irish get beat.
That could happen against Oklahoma, which shellacked Texas by a 63-21 count on Saturday, and probably made Kansas State's win over the Sooners in Norman both the only truly big road win in college football this season and the best win in college football this year. Whether that makes Bill Snyder's unkillable Wildcats No. 2 material is worth wondering: all they do is win, but it's been close against North Texas, and Oklahoma, and, on Saturday, against Iowa State, with the 'Cats gettng a 27-21 win on the road by holding the Cyclones to 231 yards of total offense and running Collin Klein 25 times for 105 yards and three touchdowns.
They'll be tested at West Virginia next week, even after the Mountaineers' stunning 49-14 defeat at the hands of mighty Texas Tech. The 'Eers gave up 676 yards to the Red Raiders, a number fewer than 100 yards off the Tech school record set under Mike Leach, and their evanescent defense has all but atomized their chances of doing anything but playing spoiler in the national title race. South Carolina fell out of contention for No. 2 at the moment on Saturday by losing at LSU, but still controls its own destiny in the SEC – and, thus, controls its path to the BCS National Championship Game. And, hell, so does LSU, if it can upend Alabama.
If my life depended on picking the clear No. 2 out of that bunch, I would probably not live for very long.
That discussion of greatness is all well and good as a sports radio-ready topic, but the best game of the day was played late at night in Louisiana, where Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech traded fusillades of pyrotechnics in Shreveport. The final score was 59-57 in A&M's favor, but only after the Bulldogs failed to turn 27 fourth-quarter points into 29 on a two-point conversion with less than a minute to go. Johnny Manziel threw for 395 yards and three scores, ran for 181 yards and three more, sprinted 70 yards to apparently seal the game with just over two minutes to go, and broke the SEC record for total offense that he had set two weeks prior, but he couldn't get the Aggies breathing room against an indefatigable Tech team that came back from 27-0 , 39-13, and 46-20 deficits on the back of Colby Cameron's 450 passing yards and five touchdowns.
Cameron threw mostly to Quinton Patton, who had 21 catches for 233 yards and four touchdowns, and still doesn't even get to be the first name mentioned in the discussion about the best receiving performances of 2012. Such is the bias for offense in college football that we don't think of a 59-57 game as a dual defensive meltdown (though it was: Texas A&M went 15-for-22 on third down against the Bulldogs, and the Aggies allowed 184 yards on 20 plays in the fourth quarter), but as one of the glorious shootouts a wide-open game affords us, and such is the progression of offense in the last 15 years that no record and no score seems unattainable, and no deficit insurmountable.
The NFL's transition to a pass-first game has rankled purist fans of Sunday's sport, but the regular attendees of Saturday's carnival of points can certainly provide reams of examples of why that's not nearly a bad thing.