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By about 10 p.m. on the East Coast, the saga of how Nick Saban ended up on the sideline Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium — just three days after a positive test for COVID-19 — had receded into the background.
The more immediate issue was whether Alabama’s offense or Georgia’s defense was going to win the battle within the battle; which unit was going to muster a push at the point in the game where it was all up for grabs.
Fast, loose and uber-aggressive may not be the way Saban wants to play — he once famously said of the spread offense, “Is this what we want football to be?” — but when you’ve got a great quarterback, a great running back and receivers that can’t be covered one-on-one, why would you play any other way?
For the third straight week, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones threw for more than 400 yards, which is a testament to his ability, the options he has with DeVonta Smith, John Metchie III and Jaylen Waddle and the scheme designed by Steve Sarkisian. In the end, even a very good Georgia defense just couldn’t plug the dam well enough in the second half.
After Georgia forced a punt with 8:31 left in the third quarter, leading 24-20, Alabama scored touchdowns on three straight possessions and that was that. It happens so quickly with this team, and it sets a clear hierarchy now in the SEC with Georgia firmly behind Alabama at No. 2 and another big gap to everyone else.
Of course, the other big sidebar was that Saban could be on the sideline at all Saturday. After the shocking news that he had tested positive Wednesday — shocking because the 68-year-old Saban, of all the SEC coaches, had been fastidious about mask wearing and social distancing — he had followed up with three consecutive negative PCR tests on consecutive days leading up to the game.
That qualified Saban, who had not shown any symptoms of the coronavirus, as a false positive under the SEC’s guidelines and cleared him to coach. That shouldn’t be particularly controversial. False positives, while rare, can and do happen for a variety of reasons. If Saban didn’t have COVID-19, he should be allowed to coach.
But it does beg a question: If Saban can coach after three straight negative tests, why are so many players sidelined by contact tracing even if they have never tested positive? In other words, Saban got back on the field faster after testing positive than dozens of players across college football who never tested positive even once. Is that the best way to go about this?
Here are nine other takeaways from Week 7 in college football:
►Georgia may well get another chance at Alabama in the SEC championship game, but it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs being able to raise their ceiling as long as Stetson Bennett is starting at quarterback. Bennett is a great story and seems to be genuinely liked by teammates, but he’s a former walk-on for a reason. While he’s a capable game manager in certain situations, you need someone who can make the tough throws to beat Alabama.
Bennett’s final line — 18-for-40 for 269 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions — should give Kirby Smart enough of an opening to see if Southern California transfer JT Daniels offers more upside.
If you want to take a more optimistic view for Georgia, Alabama got a lot of breaks Saturday. It made a 52-yard field goal at the end of the half after being given a second back by the officials on a spike, and it was on the wrong end of a pass interference call late in the third quarter that turned an Alabama field goal into a touchdown and made it a two-score game.
Still, the Bulldogs need some more offensive pop or the result against Alabama won’t look much different the next time.
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Clemson, Alabama, Tennessee and Notre Dame highlight best and worst of Week 7
SIMPLY THE BEST: Top 10 performances from Week 7 of college football
►The unraveling at Auburn is something to keep an eye on. Though Gus Malzahn’s contract still carries a hefty $21.4 million buyout thanks to a reckless extension negotiated in 2017 by former university president Steven Leath, Saturday’s 30-22 loss to South Carolina was the kind of performance that would begin a serious discussion of his job security under normal circumstances.
Obviously, the unknown factor for any school is whether the pandemic has hurt its financial position to such an extent that coaching buyouts simply aren’t tenable this year. But Malzahn is just 19-12 since signing that mega-extension, and the Tigers’ body of work this season suggests a program going backwards.
Malzahn has tied his fortunes to sophomore quarterback Bo Nix, who threw for a season-high 272 yards against South Carolina but also tossed three interceptions. Nix’s development isn’t translating to anything significant on offense, and Auburn is pretty fortunate to be 2-2 instead of 1-3, having squeaked by Arkansas on a late field goal.
Malzahn supporters will say that the most talented players in the program are young and that 2021 would be a fairer measuring stick. But Auburn is in the middle of a soft part of its schedule and doesn’t seem to be taking much advantage. If Malzahn loses next week at Ole Miss, the outrage is going to be palpable.
►The Heisman Trophy race doesn’t really get underway until next week when the Big Ten starts play, but it’s striking how asymmetrical the comparisons are going to be all season between Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Obviously, other players can and will be in the mix as the season chugs along. But those are the two quarterbacks at the top of everyone’s list, and you’d have to say that Lawrence has built up a pretty good head start.
Think of it like a golf tournament. Lawrence has already played 36 holes, and he got a nice stat-padder to finish his first half in a 73-7 win at Georgia Tech. Lawrence recorded his first 400-yard passing game (he finished with 404) on just 24 completions with five touchdowns. For the season, Lawrence has 15 touchdowns and just one interception while completing 72.4 percent of his passes. Those are really strong numbers, but the flip side is that Fields is just starting his first round next week knowing exactly who he’s chasing and what he’s got to do.
That element alone injects some serious intrigue into the race.
►We saw some signs of life — finally — from Florida State last week in a semi-competitive loss at Notre Dame. Still, it would have been difficult to envision further improvement happening quickly enough for the Seminoles to come back right away and beat No. 6 North Carolina. But that’s exactly what Florida State did, 31-28, building a big early lead and then hanging on for dear life in the fourth quarter as the Tar Heels made a big push.
Even though the Seminoles were a bit fortunate at the end — North Carolina’s final drive ended with three straight dropped passes — you have to remember this is a team that lost its opener to Georgia Tech, lost by 42 points to Miami and was trailing Jacksonville State well into the third quarter before finding a bit of identity with Jordan Travis at quarterback.
After a tense offseason, a terrible start on the field and a bout with COVID-19, that’s a huge, pressure-relieving win for first-year coach Mike Norvell.
►The strangest scene of the night occurred moments after Memphis escaped with a 50-49 victory over UCF in a dramatic game that ended when Knights sophomore Daniel Obarski missed a 40-yard field goal.
Obarski, who is in his first year as the primary placekicker, understandably looked upset and angry as Memphis knelt down for the game’s final play, punching a banner behind the UCF bench. Then backup quarterback Quadry Jones came over and said something to him, causing Obarski to charge at him as if he wanted to fight. After a few seconds, coaches had pulled them apart and UCF players appeared to go to the locker room without incident.
Still, what an ugly look for the Knights, who blew a 35-14 lead and lost a game in which they had 798 offensive yards. That’s the kicker’s fault? Hardly.
Emotions can run high in games like this and it’s unclear what was said between players. But that kind of thing playing out in the moments after a tough loss isn’t the best indicator of team chemistry or a strong locker room culture. Coach Josh Heupel has questions to answer about a lot of different aspects of the once-unstoppable UCF program right now, but this one seems like the most revealing and the most pressing.
►The early leader for national coach of the year? It’s Arkansas’ Sam Pittman, the hire that was panned more than any other last offseason by media members and industry insiders after the Razorbacks struck out on several of their top targets. Funny how this stuff works, isn’t it?
Pittman, who hadn’t been a head coach since Hutchinson Community College in 1992-93 but built his reputation in FBS as a veteran offensive line coach and recruiter, ended up getting the Arkansas job mostly because he really wanted it. Not a lot of flashy up-and-comers did, given that the Hogs ended last season on a run of four wins in their previous 27 games. From the outside, it looked like an impossible situation. A coaching graveyard.
But remarkably, Pittman has the Hogs sitting at 2-2 after a 33-21 win over Ole Miss — and they’d be 3-1 if not for an unfortunate mistake by the officials against Auburn last week when an inadvertent whistle negated a fumble that would have ended the game.
The Razorbacks are playing extremely hard under Pittman, and that accounts for a lot. But the biggest difference is defensive coordinator Barry Odom (the former Missouri head coach who was fired last December), who has transformed Arkansas’ defense into a very salty unit. Arkansas limited the same Ole Miss team that put up 48 points on Alabama to three scores and 4-of-16 on third down. They also forced seven turnovers, including six interceptions of quarterback Matt Corral.
►Meanwhile, whoever is running Arkansas’ social media accounts deserves a bonus this week. Moments after the game ended, the Razorbacks’ official Twitter account had a video ready to go of a cartoon train — the “Lane Train,” as it were — crashing as the tracks collapse into a ditch. The train wearing a handkerchief-style mask with “Manning 10/18,” a nod to the mask Lane Kiffin wore last week as a tribute to former Ole Miss greats Archie and Eli Manning and a recruiting pitch for 15-year-old future star Arch Manning, was a really nice touch.
►How much did it mean to Kentucky’s Mark Stoops to win in Knoxville for the first time since 1984? After the Wildcats’ 34-7 victory, Stoops told the Kentucky Sports Radio postgame show that he was “sipping on a bourbon, and I’m going to go home and have a cigar” to celebrate. As he should. Though Stoops had beaten Tennessee once before in 2017, this is not an everyday occurrence for the Wildcats. In fact, Saturday’s win was just the third overall for Kentucky in the last 35 years. It was also the biggest margin of victory for the Wildcats in this rivalry since a 27-0 shutout in 1935.
►As of this week, UMass had just one football game scheduled this season. It did not go particularly well. The Minutemen lost to Georgia Southern, 41-0, and had just 191 yards of offense in what might be its only time on the field. But if there was ever a team with an excuse for getting blown out, it’s the Minutemen.
After initially following other leagues like the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten that postponed fall football, UMass reversed course on Sept. 21 and decided it would try to play.
The problem is, without a conference to provide a schedule, UMass didn’t have any games lined up. And with the SEC and Big Ten playing conference-only schedules, the options were slim. So UMass’ hopes of playing again rest on games in other leagues being cancelled, which would potentially allow them to be a last-minute replacement. In fact, that’s how Georgia Southern ended up on the schedule when its Oct. 14 game against Appalachian State was postponed on Oct. 7. Later that day, they struck a deal with UMass for a $60,000 appearance fee. Maybe one game is better than none, but if that’s the only time UMass plays this season, it can’t leave a great taste in its mouth.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken