Conference-only schedules continued to chew up several of the leading contenders in the SEC, leaving the league hinging its College Football Playoff hopes on a select few only four games into the regular season.
After a tough Saturday, the SEC has just four teams with fewer than two losses and a dwindling list of options for the national semifinals.
This isn’t to say the SEC champion isn’t a lock for the top four, or even that the conference won’t again have a case for making up half of the playoff field, especially during this unique regular season.
And the SEC still has a monopoly on the college football spotlight. Alabama’s 41-24 win against Georgia was one of the most anticipated games of the regular season and perhaps the most important matchup in terms of its impact on the playoff.
In advance of the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, however, Auburn and Tennessee fell to 2-2 after losing as favorites against long-suffering opponents — the Tigers to South Carolina and Tennessee at home to Kentucky.
The Tigers and Volunteers join LSU, Florida and others in struggling with the conference-only scheduling model that eliminated the warm-up period of non-league games against pushovers and forced teams to step right into more demanding matchups against SEC opponents.
Saturday wasn’t a complete disaster. Texas A&M moved to 3-1 after beating Mississippi State 28-14, the Aggies’ second win in a row after a lopsided loss against Alabama to start October. Arkansas is now a very impressive and unexpected 2-2 after beating Ole Miss 33-21.
And Alabama made a strong case for being No. 1 in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll. Even after a disappointing loss, Georgia will remain the team to beat in the East division and a threat to win the SEC and return to the playoff.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers in college football:
The list of eye-popping numbers from Clemson’s 73-7 rout of Georgia Tech includes 17 players who made at least one reception, which is absolutely ridiculous. (Both of coach Dabo Swinney’s kids, Will and Drew, made a catch.) Behind Trevor Lawrence’s 404 passing yards and five touchdowns, the Tigers remained unbeaten and might have done enough to stay atop the Coaches Poll.
The Wildcats have followed two close losses, to Auburn (29-13) and Ole Miss (42-41), with back-to-back wins against Mississippi State and Tennessee. Both wins have been paced by the defense. The Wildcats returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the game’s first five minutes and held Tennessee to just 287 yards of offense in winning 34-7, the program’s first victory in Knoxville since 1984.
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There was understandable concern over how well the Hurricanes would bounce back after losing to Clemson, especially against a motivated opponent in Pittsburgh looking to rewrite its season after losing two straight games by a single point. Not that it was a banner performance: Miami’s 31-19 win didn’t include much from the running game (2.6 yards per carry) and saw quarterback D’Eriq King throw two interceptions for the second game in a row. But King tossed a season-high four touchdowns and the Hurricanes held on to remain in the thick of the New Year’s Six bowl conversation.
The Razorbacks are the biggest surprise in the Bowl Subdivision and one of the great success stories in recent SEC history. After picking off six Ole Miss passes in the 12-point win, Arkansas is sitting at 2-2 under first-year coach Sam Pittman after being picked in some circles to win no more than once against this SEC-only schedule.
The Mike Norvell era has its defining moment. After a horrible start — a lopsided loss to rival Miami, Norvell sidelined following a positive test for COVID-19 — the Seminoles pulled off the year’s biggest upset by dominating North Carolina early and then holding on for a 31-28 win. The decision to name Jordan Travis the starting quarterback has paid off for the offense, which has rallied around the former Louisville transfer. Travis finished with 191 passing yards and 107 yards rushing, one of two Seminoles to crack the 100-yard mark on the ground.
Pushed and threatened by a Georgia offense that hit on explosive plays through the air and a Georgia defense that is dangerous when able to attack the passer, Alabama responded to a 24-17 deficit by scoring the game’s final 24 points. Credit goes to quarterback Mac Jones, who had another outstanding day, but the win was keyed by an unlikely source: Alabama’s defense. Maligned through three games, the Crimson Tide made two key interceptions in the third quarter to spark the impressive win.
South Carolina had never beaten Auburn as a member of the SEC. The Tigers hadn’t lost to the Gamecocks, period, since 1933. It’s been that kind of year. After spotting Auburn a 16-7 lead in the second quarter, South Carolina went on a 23-6 run to win 30-22 and knock the Tigers out of the playoff chase. Auburn lost despite running for 209 yards on the ground, marking the program’s first loss when cracking the 200-yard mark since early in the 2016 season.
Here’s where we nitpick a win, which is unfair given how many other preseason contenders have already suffered one, two or even three losses. But the Fighting Irish were uninspiring in a 12-7 win against Louisville, which had allowed 38.7 points per game and 6.8 yards per play in losing three straight in ACC play. While able to dominate the clock, run the ball effectively and avoid any crucial turnovers, Notre Dame’s overall listlessness doesn’t breed confidence in how the Irish will fare against Clemson next month.
Needing a win to stay within range of Cincinnati and SMU in the American, UCF coughed up leads of 21, 14 and 12 points in the second half and missed the potential game-winning field goal with 19 seconds left to lose 50-49 to Memphis. For the Tigers, who were led by senior quarterback Brady White’s 486 passing yards and six touchdowns, the win snaps a 13-game losing streak to the Knights dating to 1990. After seeing its slim hopes of making the playoff outright eliminated in a loss earlier this month to Tulsa, falling to Memphis endangers UCF’s chances of claiming the access-bowl bid given to the best team in the Group of Five. Combined, White and UCF sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel accounted for 1,034 passing yards and 11 scores.
The sky isn’t falling. Even after losing to Alabama, the Bulldogs remain in the thick of the playoff chase and the likeliest candidate to come out of the East division and meet the Crimson Tide in December for the SEC championship. The loss does raise questions about Stetson Bennett’s future as the starting quarterback and about the health of a defense that had dominated through three games but allowed 564 yards to the Crimson Tide. Both issues can and will be addressed before these two teams meet again. The bigger concern: Are Georgia and Kirby Smart ever going to beat Nick Saban and Alabama?
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg