The game of the year now looks different. So does the race in the rugged SEC West. The Heisman Trophy landscape has been altered.
Tua Tagovailoa is no longer a heavy favorite to win the NCAA’s most prestigious honor. Alabama is not a lock to reach the College Football Playoff. LSU, in fact, may be the favorite in the SEC West.
All that changed midway through the second quarter Saturday, as Alabama was on its way to what looked like another rout in a season full of them. Ahead of SEC punching-bag Tennessee 21-10, Tagovailoa hurt himself while avoiding the rush. A few plays later, he was out, replaced by sophomore Mac Jones. Later, it was revealed he had a high-ankle sprain. On Sunday, Alabama announced he underwent a successful “tight-rope procedure” to repair the ankle, just as he did last year when he hurt the other ankle in the SEC Championship game.
He returned 29 days later, to lead the Crimson Tide past Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns. He wasn’t nearly as successful in the title game, throwing two interceptions as Clemson rolled to the crown.
This time, he has only 20 days to get healthy. Twenty days before Alabama hosts undefeated rival LSU in the game of the year, the winner likely locking up a playoff berth, the loser playing with significant amounts of fire. LSU would actually be in better shape to reach the playoff if it lost, considering it has wins over Texas and Auburn. Alabama’s best victory thus far: Mediocre Texas A&M.
Alabama is optimistic Tagovailoa will be back for LSU. Will he be healthy? Will he be rusty? This is a serious injury. Giants running back Saquon Barkley, a quick healer, needed a full month until he returned. The Crimson Tide need Tagovailoa at his best. The defense isn’t typical of Nick Saban’s dominant program, allowing 321 yards per game. The running game isn’t the usual force, either, ranked 68th in the country. LSU and its potent offense that averages 50.1 points per game could be favored if Jones, who was used as a game-manager against Tennessee and given little freedom, is under center.
The hope is Tagovailoa will only miss next Saturday’s game against Arkansas. Alabama can put the scout team quarterback under center and prevail. Then comes the bye, followed by LSU coming to Tuscaloosa.
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa is falling back in the Heisman race, as fellow dynamic quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields and Joe Burrow continue to put up massive numbers.
Tagovailoa could make up the necessary ground. He could return and beat LSU. But now, with this ankle injury, that’s very much in doubt.
Wisconsin’s stunning loss at woeful Illinois impacted more than the Badgers. It also hurt the Big Ten, increasing the importance of the conference producing an undefeated league champion.
Favored by 31, the Badgers coughed up a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead, and tumbled to 13th in the Associated Press poll. They are no longer a legitimate playoff contender, courtesy of this choke job.
Perhaps, if Wisconsin wins at Ohio State on Saturday, the significance of that victory will help neutralize the abhorrent loss to Illinois. But that would negatively impact the Buckeyes, too, and it seems extremely unlikely.
Bottom line: The Big Ten lost a marquee game, and an elite team because the Badgers couldn’t put away an opponent that was allowing an average of 41 points per game in three Big Ten contests, all of them losses.
Rhule of play
Ryan Day has done a fine job in his first year as a college coach, leading Ohio State to an undefeated season thus far. Ed Orgeron deserves plenty of credit for acknowledging his program’s offensive shortcomings and adjusting at LSU. But nobody has been better than Baylor’s Matt Rhule, who already has equaled last season’s win total and is our National Coach of the Year front-runner.
Remember, he inherited a program in disarray in 2016, reeling from a series of sexual assault scandals. Three years later, he has the defensively stout Bears positioned to win the Big 12, with home games remaining against league-favorites Oklahoma and Texas.
It’s not a coincidence NFL teams have looked at Rhule as a head-coaching candidate each of the last two years. This season will only push a franchise harder to make him their coach.
1. Ohio State (7-0) (Last week: 1)
Every undefeated contender has had a tense moment or two, even Alabama. All, except one. Ohio State has yet to trail in the second half, its closest final margin a 24-point rout of Michigan State.
2. Alabama (7-0) (2)
Nothing but Tua Tagovailoa’s right ankle matters right now for Alabama. The Crimson Tide won’t win the SEC West or reach the playoff without the Heisman Trophy contender.
3. LSU (7-0) (3)
There is no longer any doubt whether or not the Tigers are a true title contender. Big wins (at Texas, home against Florida) and dominant performances (one victory by single digits) illustrate that.
4. Oklahoma (7-0) (4)
The Sooners have scored at least 34 points in 17 straight games, spanning three different quarterbacks. The one constant: Coach Lincoln Riley.
5. Clemson (7-0) (5)
It’s going to be hard to know what Clemson is until the playoff, provided it gets in. The ACC is that weak. Just look at Saturday, when Trevor Lawrence threw two red-zone interceptions early, and all it did was lessen the rout over Louisville.
6. Georgia (6-1) (7)
If not for the offensively challenged opponent, Georgia would’ve had to sweat on Saturday. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Kentucky was putrid in managing only 177 total yards, but their offensive issues remain, especially with a passing game that produced just 35 yards through the air.
7. Notre Dame (5-1) (8)
Win Saturday at Michigan and an 11-1 regular season looks very realistic. It’s the Irish’s only shot at the playoff.
8. Florida (7-1) (9)
We’ll take Florida — not Georgia — to win the SEC East. Gators so far have shown more toughness and resiliency, both showcased in their come-from-behind win at South Carolina on Saturday.
9. Penn State (7-0) (10)
Consecutive wins, each by a single score over ranked opponents Iowa and Michigan, give the undefeated Nittany Lions some legitimacy. Their third double-digit-win season in four years seems likely.
10. Oregon (6-1) (NR)
Just as the Ducks have rebounded from the season-opening loss to Auburn, they showed resiliency Saturday, rallying from a two-touchdown deficit to knock off Washington and take a commanding two-game lead in the Pac-12 North.
Dropped out: Wisconsin (6-1)
(in alphabetical order)
QB Joe Burrow, LSU
The senior now owns LSU’s record for touchdowns in a season with 29, and he still has five regular-season games remaining.
QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
Forget his 30 total touchdowns, .707 completion percentage and undefeated record. The most telling stat of Fields’ season is turnovers: three.
QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
We’re running out of adjectives to describe this dream season for the Alabama transfer. On Saturday, he missed just one pass in 17 attempts, accumulated 401 yards of offense and produced five touchdowns.
QB Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
A late-season injury helped cost Tagovailoa the Heisman Trophy last year and a right high-ankle sprain may ruin his chances this year, too. He’s expected to miss a few weeks after getting hurt against Tennessee.
RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
That sound you hear is Taylor’s faint Heisman hopes plummeting. In the same game Taylor became just the fourth player in NCAA history to rush for 5,000 yards before his junior year ended, he also lost a big fumble, keying Wisconsin’s stunning collapse at Illinois.