It's a strange year for college football, and even for the biggest games, the scene isn't quite the same as we'd expect. That will feel particularly true this Saturday when Alabama and Georgia, two of the three best teams in the country, face off in Tuscaloosa without Nick Saban on the sidelines.
Alabama announced Wednesday night that Saban tested positive for COVID-19. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is in charge of operations on the ground while Saban is away, but similar to Saban's involvement Saturday, how much autonomy Sarkisian has to make decisions is still being discussed.
Under normal circumstances, there would be a weeklong party, endless hype, fields filled with tailgating and revelry, and a crowd ready to burst with energy. This year, we'll be getting a watered-down version of all of that, and missing arguably the best coach in the game.
Still, the Dawgs and Tide will provide us with what could be the most anticipated game of the season, and despite the pandemic-related changes, this one still ticks most of the boxes we'd expect for a truly epic SEC matchup.
A painful history: Every time Georgia has reached the precipice of college football's elite in recent years, Alabama has been there to shove the Bulldogs back down the mountain in heartbreaking fashion. Go back to 2008, when UGA had the No. 1 team in the country and donned its black jerseys for a huge Saturday night prime-time game against the Tide. It was 31-0 Alabama at halftime. Or how about 2012 when Aaron Murray's final pass of the SEC title game was short of the end zone and time expired on a 32-28 Tide win. Or how about 2017, when the Dawgs led 13-0 at halftime only for a freshman QB named Tua Tagovailoa to emerge from the locker room as Alabama's savior? So, yeah, there will be a little history behind this game Saturday.
The pressure of two top-5 ranked teams: Here's where it really means more for the SEC -- we know fans of teams in the conference are incredibly proud of their schools, and the SEC itself. But when teams like these meet up for a top-five matchup, it's almost like a pre-conference championship game. The winning fan base will hold this kind of game with them until the next one, no matter what happens the rest of the season. And the hype of the game will undoubtedly translate onto the field.
Two stout defenses: There's not many more on-field things than this in the SEC, right? Alabama's defense isn't what it has been in the past, but there's still NFL talent on that side of the ball. But Georgia's defense, well, that's a unit that's going to keep people in Tuscaloosa up at night, whether they want to admit it or not. Going up against Alabama's offensive weapons is going to be a treat for college football fans everywhere. It's a matchup that you're just not getting anywhere else.
A true SEC QB: For a genuinely epic SEC game, you need to have a quarterback with a name that just screams SEC -- something like Hutson or Grayson or... Stetson, as in Georgia's walk-on turned starter, Stetson Bennett IV. Unfortunately, we get only one of those in this game, as Mac Jones is really more of a Big 12 QB name, which helps explain Alabama's all-offense/no-defense start to the season.
Game Day Q&A
After an ugly 24-2 loss to Kentucky, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach suggested a "purge" might be in order on his roster, saying a number of players might not be sold on what he's trying to build in Starkville. We caught up with Leach to find out about the mood in the locker room, the problems on offense and the SEC suddenly looking like an Air Raid conference.
ESPN: You said after last week's loss that you may need to get rid of some malcontents on the team. How do you identify those guys and how do you manage it?
Leach: The first week, I don't think we were quite as good as maybe we or other people thought. We're dealing with a group that's got very limited experience. Almost none of our guys started last year. I don't really think it's malcontents across the board as much as you just have those guys who are kind of wait-and-see. You have a little of, "How's this going to turn out?" rather than really locking in and letting it rip out there. We've got to get to that point, and I don't think we're at that point yet.
ESPN: How much have the offensive struggles been about young guys learning the scheme vs. unforced errors when guys are pressing to make too much happen?
Leach: Probably some of all of the above, but I do think we're trying to make too much happen, and once you do that it becomes a series of overcorrections. But the other thing is we just have so many young players that it's just the learning how to work and prepare is part of it. Coaching-wise, we need to do whatever we can to accelerate that process.
ESPN: In retrospect, did the success in the opener vs. LSU create a problematic image for a team that was still going through some growing pains?
Leach: I think it distorted things a little. It definitely distorted where we were at in our minds probably.
ESPN: Kylin Hill was a huge part of the win over LSU. He had 15 catches last week but didn't do much with them. Do you need to find ways to better utilize him, and might that mean running the ball more?
Leach: We've got to incorporate the running back. We have several good running backs, and we need to get them more involved. It's kind of a Catch-22 where we have to get our linemen in order to do that. We're breaking in some guys up front who I think are going to be great players, but we need to get them there as quick as we can.
ESPN: Did you hear any feedback from your players about the "purge" comment?
Leach: Not really, but if people aren't bought in or ready to play or committed, we're more than willing to do that. That's always been part of the process as far as building teams. They may use different words, but weeding out the guys that aren't on board and elevating the guys who are, that's all part of it and always has been.
ESPN: You're a guy who's synonymous with offense. What do you make of people suddenly shocked at all the scoring happening in the SEC?
Leach: It's been happening all along. It's interesting because I get into this conference and we're supposed to be the only ones throwing the ball in the SEC. Everybody's throwing the ball in the SEC and they were a couple years ago, too. LSU won the national championship throwing the ball. So I think some of it is just stigma that people keep repeating.
After 'Thick Six,' NC State goes for win No. 4
NC State's Alim McNeill has always been big, but when he was in high school, fans and coaches just assumed he weighed less than he did. How else to explain the athleticism? The guy played middle linebacker on the football team and right field on his baseball team, had a 36-inch vertical leap and could run the 40 in 4.65 seconds.
All that would be impressive enough for a guy checking in at 245 or 250. McNeill's actual weight back then?
"I played at 292," he said, "and that was probably the most athletic I've ever been."
So while the rest of the college football world watched in awe as the now 320-pound McNeill showcased that athleticism with one of the year's top plays -- a batted ball at the line of scrimmage that he then fielded like a pop fly and returned 18 yards for a touchdown -- the folks who know him well weren't surprised.
"They all said they knew it was going to happen eventually," McNeill said of the play.
OK, he did get his share of texts and jokes about the big man rumbling into the end zone, too. His favorite: "One guy called it a 'Thick Six,'" McNeill said. Never let it be said McNeill can't take a joke. Just don't go suggesting the play took anything miraculous.
"I wasn't winded at all," he said of his jaunt into the end zone, which was followed by a sprint along the back line and into the arms of teammates. "I was just excited."
Around NC State, there's ample room for excitement beyond the occasional Thick Six, too.
After a dismal 2019 season in which bad luck and a run of injuries decimated the Wolfpack, this year's team is just starting to round into form, led by an increasingly impressive defense. The Wolfpack host Duke on Saturday and could get to 4-1 in conference play for only the second time under coach Dave Doeren.
"It's starting to click now, where we're finding out about each other and how we fit together," McNeill said of the defense. "I don't see anything else but us getting better and better."
What to watch for
The best QB in college football goes for a record: Trevor Lawrence has not thrown an interception since the first half of Clemson's win over Louisville on Oct. 19, 2019 -- just shy of one full calendar year ago. Since then, Lawrence has completed 70% of his passes, accounted for nearly 4,000 yards and tallied 43 touchdowns. The streak now stands at 355 throws without a pick, and if he can add 25 more attempts to that tally against Georgia Tech on Saturday, he'll break the ACC record held by Russell Wilson (per ESPN Stats & Information research).
Notre Dame's next pushover: The Irish come into the week ranked No. 4 in the country and that might be entirely reasonable. Tough to tell though. In their first three games, the Irish have played Duke (1-3), USF and Florida State (0-6 combined vs. FBS). Next up? That'd be Louisville, owner of a 1-3 mark, with the only win coming against woeful Western Kentucky. The fact that the Duke and FSU games at least flirted with being close offers some cause for pessimism about the Irish, and it's not likely that a win -- even a dominant one -- over the Cardinals will change that. It's fair to say the ACC, thus far, isn't exactly making a strong case Notre Dame needs to join the league permanently to be better positioned for future playoff berths.
Syracuse prepares for a Freeze: There might be just a little bad blood when Liberty heads to The Dome in Syracuse on Saturday. Back in August, Syracuse AD John Wildhack had harsh words for the Flames' lackluster COVID-19 testing policy, but Liberty offered assurances of better protocols moving forward, and now the two teams will actually meet on the field. Last year, Syracuse had no problem squashing Liberty -- with Hugh Freeze watching from a hospital bed in the press box, no less -- but this year figures to be less of a pushover for the struggling Orange. Syracuse will be without QB Tommy DeVito, who is probably out for the season because of a leg injury, and Liberty arrives with one of the most versatile QBs in the country thus far, former Auburn transfer Malik Willis.
UMass plays a game: The Minutemen weren't sure they'd get to this point, but they'll officially make their 2020 debut Saturday against Georgia Southern. The FBS Independent didn't have a conference to decide its fate -- or its schedule -- but it has been beholden to the state of Massachusetts for regulations on dealing with playing during the virus. That has meant 14 practices in 19 days to prep for this game, and the team is playing with 68 healthy scholarship players and no walk-ons (they weren't allowed back on campus yet). There's optimism UMass will get a few more games scheduled soon, too, but head coach Walt Bell said he's thrilled to see his team get any opportunity it can to play. "Our kids were awesome through the whole deal," Bell said. "There was a two- or three-day run you could see it weighing on them, but they've fought through it, and we're able to give them a little light at the end of the tunnel."
The AAC elimination game: Memphis and UCF play this week, both already having lost games this season. Not many people anticipated this, but it's consistent with the way the rest of the year has gone in sport and otherwise. That said, this matchup serves as an early elimination game in the conference, at least as far as championship game appearances go. There are too many talented teams this year to even think about making the conference title game with two losses at this point in the season. SMU and Cincinnati have impressed, Navy has rebounded with two conference wins after a poor start to the season, and Houston started off 1-0 last week. This game is a must-win for both the Tigers and Knights.
The Thundering Herd: Undefeated Marshall (3-0) is the best team no one is talking about. Despite having two games postponed this season, the Thundering Herd have two blowout wins over Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky, and an impressive 17-7 win over App State in September. They'll be taking on 3-1 Louisiana Tech this week, whose only loss was to undefeated BYU. With a 6 p.m. ET start, this game could be a nice little appetizer before the later starts.
An ignominious record: Florida State is a nearly two-touchdown underdog against North Carolina on Saturday, and a loss would set a particularly ugly mark in the school's history. The Seminoles joined the ACC in 1992, and it took 10 seasons before they lost four ACC games. But a loss to the Tar Heels would be the fourth in a row for FSU in conference play, the first time that has happened, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Player to watch
After a 12-for-28, 121-yard, two-interception performance against the top-ranked Clemson Tigers, I want to see how King rebounds against Pitt. The Panthers have the 12th-ranked defense in SP+, so it won't be a simple task. He did run the ball well against Clemson, but he will have to be a more efficient passer this week if the Hurricanes don't want to drop two in a row.
Hale: BYU QB Zach Wilson
The Cougars get to show off their 4-0 record on Friday night this week, going against a Houston team that opened its season with an impressive win last week after a long delay to the season. That gives the country a chance to see Wilson on a big stage, and you won't want to miss the chance. The BYU QB is quickly turning heads at the NFL level and could work his way into first-round consideration if he continues his hot start. Through four games, Wilson is averaging 12.3 yards per pass -- a number bettered only by Alabama's Mac Jones -- while completing an FBS-best 81.2% of his throws. Last season, Houston ranked 115th nationally in passing defense (by yards per attempt), so Wilson could pad those already impressive numbers Friday.
Under-the-radar game of the week
How many Hokies might miss this one? It has been double-digit absences in each of their first three games, but Virginia Tech has still played well. Yes, the defense struggled in a loss to North Carolina last week, but Khalil Herbert and the ground game are playing elite football. Meanwhile, BC is one flubbed 2-point try away from potentially being 4-0 in Jeff Hafley's first season. Both teams have a few flaws to work out, but these two are proving that there's real depth in the ACC this year, and there's still a good chance one of them could emerge as a contender.
Upset pick of the week
Pandemic aside, the thing I absolutely did not expect in 2020 was being intrigued by Arkansas Razorbacks football. The Razorbacks played Georgia hard for a half before Stetson Bennett IV emerged in the second half. They beat Mississippi State a week after K.J. Costello threw for 50 miles against the defending champs, and got hosed against Auburn last week. With as rough as Ole Miss' defense has looked all season, I'm counting on another Arkansas win. Side note: Doesn't it seem like Feleipe Franks has been playing college football for a decade?
Hale: Pitt over Miami
NC State reporter Joe Giglio brought up an interesting stat this week about the new "Clemsoning": Since 2015, ACC teams are just 8-21 the week after playing Clemson. The idea, it would seem, is the Tigers inflict damage that lasts well beyond the game's end, and given Miami's high hopes entering last week's showdown, it wouldn't be a shock if there were something of a hangover. Of course, Pitt probably has its own morale issues after two straight one-point losses, but let's not over analyze this. Pitt's luck has to turn eventually, right? Anyone? Bueller?