First & 20: SEC has Bama but shows shortcomings

Anthony Gimino

September 04, 2016 at 2:09 pm.

Sep 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA;  Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart celebrates with safety Dominick Sanders (24) and running back Nick Chubb (27) after the 2016 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Georgia Dome. Georgia won 33-24. Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart celebrates with safety Dominick Sanders (24) and running back Nick Chubb (27) after the 2016 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Georgia Dome. Georgia won 33-24. Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC is a one-trick pony.

It’s a heck of a thoroughbred, though, as Alabama showed by outclassing USC 52-6 in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night.

OK, so the SEC is the best conference in the country. But, these days, that’s only because of Nick Saban. It’s not because of LSU’s Les Miles or whatever happened to the former Georgia coach, and Steve Spurrier is not walking through that tunnel with a visor on his head and a Tennessee insult on his lips.

The SEC has produced eight of the past 10 national champions, but four of the last five belong to Saint Nick. Hey, SEC. Pssst. The rest of the y’all have been as flawed, as inconsistent, as prone to the vagaries of college football, as those you mock in the Big Ten, the ACC and, well, pretty much everyone west of the Mississippi.

Take the first (glorious) week of the college football season.

The SEC lost six games as the curtain opened.

Mississippi State squandered a 17-0 lead and lost to South Alabama. Missouri rolled over against West Virginia, 26-11. LSU failed to leap past Wisconsin in Lambeau, losing 16-14 as a double-digit favorite.

Auburn was competitive in a home loss to No. 2 Clemson, but Gus Malzahn, of all folks, seems to have misplaced his offensive game plan. Kentucky gave up 34 unanswered points to Southern Miss and lost 44-35 to begin a season in which fourth-year coach Mark Stoops desperately needs the postseason.

South Carolina and Vanderbilt opened conference play — a 13-10 win for the Gamecocks — in a game so ugly it should never be replayed on the SEC Network.

And more …

Tennessee barely got off the ropes against the Sun Belt’s Appalachian State, winning in overtime by fumble recovery in the end zone. Florida slept through a 24-7 win over UMass, which very well might be the worst team in the country. Arkansas eked out a one-point win over Louisiana Tech.

“Well,” said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, “we were trying to keep everybody in the stands for four quarters. Succeeded in that.”

Georgia, with Kirby Smart making his coaching debut, posted a good win over North Carolina, but a quarterback controversy looms. Texas A&M, not exactly a picture of stability on or off the field, collapsed late in regulation before prevailing in overtime against UCLA.

Ole Miss could make a statement Monday night against Florida State. We’ll see.

The point is, the SEC is a good league with the nation’s greatest program. Don’t confuse the two. The gap between the 13 other SEC teams and everyone else doesn’t really exist.

10 storylines

1. Houston could go all the way — The Cougars dispatched No. 3 Oklahoma and were flat-out the better team. There’s a long, long playoff road ahead, but it will be hard to deny the Cougars a spot in the Final Four if they run the table in the American Athletic Conference. The key game is out of conference: Nov. 17 at home vs. Louisville. Speaking of which …

2. Lamar Jackson is the new Deshaun Watson — Louisville’s Jackson, a sophomore quarterback, accounted for eight touchdowns in the first half of a romp over Charlotte. The dual threat will have a chance for a head-to-head comparison later in the season when the dangerous Cardinals take on Watson’s Clemson squad.

3. The Pac-12 falls off the stage — It used to be, back in the Pac-8 and Pac-10 days, that USC and UCLA needed to be good for the league to be considered good. That’s not as true today (thanks, Stanford and Oregon!) but respective losses to Alabama and Texas A&M in differing shades of embarrassment was still a collective face-plant that gives the Pac-12 lingering black eyes.

4. Oklahoma is not done — The Sooners have a redemption date against Ohio State in two weeks, and running the table in the Big 12 doesn’t seem to be a mountain too high. Meanwhile, Sooners fans are busy buying up Houston voodoo dolls.

5. The FCS is alive and well — The Football Bowl Subdivision does this every year, and yet so many seem surprised when it happens. Northern Iowa beat Iowa State, Eastern Washington defeated Washington State and Richmond dumped Virginia Tech 37-20 in what was supposed to be a happy debut for new Cavs coach Bronco Mendenhall.

6. Les Miles’ job security is still a thing — Now, where did we put those pitchforks and torches from last season?

7. Alabama has a QB — C’mon, Nick Saban isn’t going to trust his team to a true freshman quarterback. Wait. What? He is trusting his team to a true freshman quarterback? Can’t wait to see what’s next after Jalen Hurts came in against USC, shook off a fumble, and accounted for four touchdowns.

8. The “Trill” is back — Kenny Hill, the Texas A&M quarterback, made his Horned Frogs’ debut and looked like predecessor Trevone Boykin. Hill passed for 439 yards against South Dakota State.

9. UCLA’s Josh Rosen is still a work in progress — The Bruins, trying to shed their underachiever label, fell at Texas A&M as Rosen, the sophomore wunderkind quarterback, had three passes intercepted. In UCLA’s three-game losing streak, dating to last season, he has been responsible for eight turnovers.

10. Too early playoff picture — Alabama, Houston, Clemson, Ohio State.

5 big comebacks

1. Pitt RB James Conner — Best story of the season. Conner came back from a 2015 season-opening knee injury — and Hodgkin’s lymphoma — to not only play Saturday but score the first two touchdowns of the game in a win over Villanova. Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, ran 17 times for 53 yards and caught three passes for 16 yards.

2. Georgia RB Nick Chubb — After suffering a gruesome knee injury last October, Chubb jumped right back into the Heisman discussion with 32 carries for 222 yards and two scores in a victory over No. 22 North Carolina.

3. Clemson WR Mike Williams — A scary neck injury in last season’s opener meant Williams had to sit out the Tigers’ run to the national title game, but he’s back as Deshaun Watson’s primary target with nine catches for 174 yards against an otherwise impressive Auburn defense.

4. BYU’s backfield — QB Taysom Hill (foot) and RB Jamaal Williams (withdrew from school) missed all or most of last season. Hill, back as a 26-year-old sixth-year senior, didn’t show his old explosive running skills, but he completed 21 of 29 passes in an 18-16 win over Arizona and was crafty with his feet. Williams is back on the track to become the school’s leading career rusher, going for 162 yards on 29 carries.

5. Baylor QB Seth Russell — For a team in need of some good news, Russell returned from a last year’s season-ending neck injury and tossed four touchdown passes in the first half as the Bears cruised past Northwestern State on Friday.

5 games to watch in Week 2

1. Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee (8 p.m. ET) — College football goes to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee in a game that should set a football attendance record. And, oh yeah, the Vols need to bounce back from their messy overtime victory over Appalachian State, while new Tech coach Justin Fuente looks for a feel-good marquee victory.

2. Penn State at Pitt (noon ET) — The rivalry is renewed for the first time since 2000. Even better news, this is a contracted four-game series.

3. Arkansas at TCU (7 p.m. ET) — There’s an added whiff of desperation as both teams struggled in Week 1, with Arkansas slipping past Louisiana Tech 21-20 and TCU giving up 41 points in a win over South Dakota State.

4. BYU at Utah (7:30 p.m. ET) — No game all weekend will be played with as much passion as the Holy War, played in the regular season for the first time since 2013 (Utah won 35-28 in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl).

5. Washington State at Boise State (10:15 p.m. ET) — For the second consecutive season, WSU lost its opener to an FCS school. Last year, the Cougars went on to win nine games. Getting on track this season requires conquering the blue turf in what should be am entertaining QB shootout between Luke Falk and Boise State’s Brett Rypien, the son of former WSU standout Mark Rypien. Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s prospect takeaways for this week. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

–WR John Ross III, Washington, 5-11, 196, rJr. (#58 WR in Class of 2017): Off the national radar following a pair of knee injuries, Ross exploded back onto the scene with a three-touchdown game against Rutgers, including a 92-yard kickoff return. A proven playmaker when healthy, Ross accelerates in a flash, has excellent straight-line speed and possesses great vision to set up his blocks. In terms of his NFL projection, Ross needs to continue to work on his route-running, too often relying upon his straight-line speed to force defenders back.

–RB Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, 5-10, 235, Jr. (#45 overall prospect/#5 RB): After sitting out a few series following a bit hit to his left shoulder, Perine returned but wasn’t a big factor with Oklahoma playing from behind in the second half. He finished with only six carries for 31 yards and three catches for 28 yards.

–RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma, 6-1, 226, rSo. (#8 RB in Class of 2018): A longer, leaner athlete than Perine, Mixon may actually project better to the NFL because of his greater elusiveness and speed. He showed terrific vision, balance and burst on the 32-yard scamper, for example, cutting inside and exploding into the open field on a counter designed to run to the left. He also showed terrific concentrations and soft hands on a difficult reception.

–WR Mike Williams, Clemson, 6-4, 220 (#20/#2): Returning to the field after fracturing a bone in his neck, Williams erased concerns about his health and forced scouts to instead recall his intoxicating blend of size, speed and body control. He accounted for 72 percent of Deshaun Watson’s passing yards at one point, including six receptions for 105 yards by halftime. However, he also dropped a perfectly-thrown slant pass and had Auburn defensive backs deflect two potential touchdowns.