Takeaways: Alabama's stumble caps off chaotic college football Saturday

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Amid his deep exhales of frustration, Nick Saban captured our elation.

Amid his pointed messaging to his team, Saban spoke to all of us.

Amid his motivational machinations, he captured the essence of a searingly delightful day of college football.

“Everyone needs to remember how they feel and not forget it,” Saban said.

That’s easy, of course, if you didn’t have an emotional investment in any of the results. For those unencumbered by coaching duties, alma mater loyalties and financial ties to the results, it was a day of chaos we’ll never forget.

Saban is right. We’ll all remember watching No. 1 Alabama look like Keystone Cops in the waning minutes of a 41-38 loss at unranked Texas A&M. We’ll remember a critical dropped pass by 'Bama tight end Jahleel Billingsley, and the Tide bumbling through a final defensive drive with defenders crashing into one another and a critical pass interference penalty by DeMarcco Hellams. That enabled a 28-yard chip-shot game winner, which unleashed the Kyle Field denizens to pour out onto the field.

And that feeling, of course, provided the crescendo of a wild day highlighted by extremes — Alabama’s 19-game winning streak ending and UMass’ 16-game losing streak ending. All around, insanity ruled the day: Iowa punted to win; Arkansas gambled and lost; Oklahoma erased a historic 21-point deficit; and Michigan ripped loose both the ball — and likely the Scott Frost era – in the waning moments of a gutty win.

There was more, so much more. Coach O’s LSU tenure has nosedived past the point of potential recovery, Cincinnati has further positioned itself for the College Football Playoff and No. 10 BYU bowed out of the College Football Playoff race. The Big Ten’s banner season could feature five teams ranked in the top 10 for the first time in the league’s history. The quarterback who began the year as a Heisman favorite, OU’s Spencer Rattler, will likely lose his job to transcendent freshman Caleb Williams. Heck, USC lost its third consecutive Pac-12 game at home and no one even noticed.

But Saturday's feelings — the one Saban and we all can’t forget — started in College Station. Consider all that crumbled with the loss.

Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on from the sideline during a game between the Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 9, 2021. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on from the sideline during a game between the Crimson Tide and the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 9, 2021. (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Alabama lost for the first time since 2019, and it snapped a string of historic streaks. The Tide lost to an unranked opponent for the first time in 100 games and became the first No. 1 team to lose to an unranked opponent since 2008 when Oregon State beat USC. Nick Saban also lost for the first time to a former assistant, snapping a string of 24 victories over the young Jedis he taught the Force.

What do we make of all this chaos? For Alabama, the loss is a sign of the Tide’s mortality. This Alabama team isn’t nearly the crew we’ve seen in recent seasons — inexperienced at quarterback, relatively pedestrian at tailback and the wide receiving crew is solid but lacking the multiple first rounders who left opposing coordinators so helpless in recent years.

Amid Saban’s disappointment and the roll calls of mistakes, he also cut to the core of what this day of craziness could end up meaning: “We still can accomplish everything we want to accomplish.”

Saban is right, of course. It’s more unusual for college football national champions to go undefeated than it is for them to have a loss. And here’s an idea that will make leadership squirm in the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and AAC offices: We have to at least ponder the possibility of two-loss Alabama reaching the College Football Playoff.

We’ve compared this gleefully unpredictable season to 2007 a few times, and it’s worth noting that LSU lost two regular-season games before being one of two teams to reach the Bowl Championship Series title game. Imagine two-loss 'Bama — assuming they win out until the SEC title game against Georgia — going up against one-loss Iowa, undefeated Cincinnati or one-loss Oregon. Considering the brand bias that the College Football Playoff has shown, don’t be surprised if that’s at least a heavy conversation, if not an overt reality.

The mistakes for Alabama appeared correctable. They moved the ball well against Mike Elko’s defense, but sputtered in the red zone. Three times in the red zone, Alabama settled for a field goal. Another drive ended when Bryce Young got picked off by Texas A&M’s Demani Richardson, who deftly tipped the ball to himself.

That left Saban with this blunt message to clear out any lingering rat poison: “Think about two things — how you feel when you lose and what did you do to contribute to losing.”

Texas A&M’s win came after an inexplicable loss to Mississippi State last week and amid a generally sluggish run of play for the Aggies. They’d lost to Arkansas the week before, and reserve quarterback Zach Calzada transformed from a limited liability to a dynamic giant killer. He finished with 285 passing yards, and the final of his three touchdown passes — a 25-yard lob to Ainias Smith — tied the game. He also emerged from the injury tent after appearing to injure his knee to seal the game late in the fourth quarter, which will certainly live on in Texas A&M lore.

That all fueled to the wondrous insanity of a day that no other sport can match for its noon-to-last-call intensity and unpredictability in the regular season.

And while Saban wants his team to it remember as fuel, we’ll hold onto the day as an appreciation of the potential of what can happen on a college football Saturday.

LSU's spiral continues

We covered LSU’s free fall under Ed Orgeron earlier this week, as it’s looming as an inevitability that this will be his final season in Baton Rouge. Athletic director Scott Woodward’s coaching search research will go into overdrive this week, as LSU got waxed at Kentucky, 42-21.

Orgeron’s answers for the program’s issues in the wake of a 5-5 season have begged only more questions, as he appears to have flopped with his coordinator hires on both sides of the ball. The tenor of this one will haunt LSU fans, as No. 16 Kentucky pushed around LSU on both sides of the ball. Kentucky physically dominated the lines of scrimmage, which speaks to an effort issue as much as a scheme issue. That shouldn’t happen to LSU against anyone, never mind Kentucky.

Kentucky also showed that it made the savvier offseason offensive coordinator hire; Liam Coen looked a step ahead of the LSU defense. Meanwhile, LSU got shut out in the first half and needed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to avoid complete embarrassment.

LSU is 3-3 and could well finish last in the hyper-competitive SEC West. LSU’s upcoming schedule is a home game with Florida followed by road trips to No. 17 Ole Miss and then a bye week before playing at Alabama.

The bad news for LSU is there’s no obvious interim on staff if LSU were to make a midyear move on Orgeron. The good news for Woodward is he’ll have plenty of time to vet candidates, as the result is even more apparent than after the meltdown against Auburn last week.

LSU Tigers coach Ed Orgeron during the college football game between the LSU Tigers and the UCLA Bruins on Sept. 04. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LSU Tigers coach Ed Orgeron during the college football game between the LSU Tigers and the UCLA Bruins on Sept. 04. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Another big day for Cincinnati

Luke Fickell spent a rare off Saturday shuttling around Southern Ohio to his kids’ sporting events. Fickell was bracing for another historic week at Cincinnati, as the Bearcats were a strong candidate to host ESPN’s "Gameday" program for the first time in school history. Cincinnati will host UCF on ABC next week, a craftily scheduled game on a quiet week in the sport. But alas, "Gameday" will return to Athens for UK’s visit to Georgia, the second trip there in three weeks.

So with the upset of Notre Dame in their rearview and a new level of attention on the potential College Football Playoff crashers, Fickell spent his off day thrilled with how No. 5 Cincinnati has handled the rare air the program has climbed to.

No. 5 Cincinnati blasted Temple, 52-3, on Friday night. Nippert Stadium jumped for the arrival of an ACC cellar dweller the same way it would have greeted a top-10 foe. Fickell marveled at both the enthusiasm of the crowd — “definitely a buzz” — and how his team didn’t flinch at its new heights.

“That was the big thing this past week,” Fickell said by phone on Saturday. “To see what kind of maturity that we had. To be able to handle all the things going on and still do our job. That’s what I was worried about all week. Our guys did a really good job.”

The Temple blowout showcased a program that’s evolved to the point where it’s distanced itself from being branded as solely having a defensive identity. Cincinnati is averaging 41 points per game, good for the No. 8 offense in college football. (This is before the statistics from Saturday shook out.) The Bearcats have allowed 12.2 points per game, the No. 4 scoring defense.

Fickell attributes the offensive evolution to the staff’s ability to find and develop players around star quarterback Desmond Ridder. On Friday, that manifested with Jerome Ford rushing for 149 yards, Alec Pierce catching six passes for 93 yards and 6-foot-7 tight end Josh Whyle snaring two passes for 30 yards.

“I don’t know we had the pieces to help the QB grow,” Fickell said, comparing this home matchup with UCF to two years ago. “That to me is as much of the growth of Desmond Ridder is the growth of being able to put some of those pieces around him. That has been really key. Guys who can make things happen and make big plays and make quarterback look better.”

On Saturday, Cincinnati will enter a game against UCF with a stage to show just how explosive the offense has become.

Punt on the jokes

Iowa’s 23-20 victory over Penn State formally announced the Hawkeyes as a favorite to reach the College Football Playoff. The Hawkeyes won with a familiar formula: ball control; field position; and a salty defense that changed the game when star linebacker Jack Campbell knocked quarterback Sean Clifford out of the game.

Iowa proceeded to erase a 17-3 deficit, with perhaps the day’s most consistent play coming from punter Tory Taylor. He pinned Penn State inside the 10-yard line five times, which set up three interceptions, a three-and-out and a four-and-out to end the game in the final minute.

Iowa clawed back into the game after quarterback Spencer Petras shook off a tough start. He finished 17 for 31 with two touchdowns, including a 44-yard strike to Nico Ragaini on a nifty play-action, rollout-throwback call by coordinator Brian Ferentz.

Iowa’s formula of ball control and exploiting the opposition’s mistakes may not be sexy, but it’s hard to argue the effectiveness. Penn State coaches accelerated the Iowa comeback by failing to adjust to the crowd noise, as the Nittany Lions offense retreated all night until it finally figured out a silent count solution. It’s almost as if Penn State didn’t expect Kinnick Stadium to be loud. PSU finished with 10 penalties for 59 yards, including four false starts in the second quarter and four in the fourth quarter. At one point in the second quarter, Penn State suffered false starts on a mind-bending three consecutive snaps.

Iowa was sound, prepared and stayed defiant to its Ferentzian ideology. And that leaves the Hawkeyes as the best of the rest in college football, the top-performing non-SEC team so far in the 2021 season.

Red River comeback

No. 6 Oklahoma became the first team to ever come back from 21 points down and beat Texas. They’ve been playing football at Texas since 1902, and there's been plenty of heartbreak in the century since then.

But that wasn't the most remarkable development of the day. OU quarterback Spencer Rattler, the presumptive Heisman favorite, projected (by some) No. 1 draft pick and one of the offseason NIL champions appears in danger of losing his starting job for good. Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams provided such a memorable relief appearance to lead the three-touchdown comeback that his emergence as Oklahoma’s quarterback of the future may end up overshadowing the magnitude of OU’s historic comeback.

Williams’ first snap of the game — on a fourth-and-1 play to start the second quarter — ended with a 66-yard touchdown run. The image of him sprinting down the field may be a defining one in OU lore, as he appeared to be running away from Rattler and into a new paradigm for the program. Or, perhaps, an old one considering the lineage of high-end quarterbacks under Lincoln Riley.

Rattler got benched for the second consecutive Red River game, and this time he doesn’t appear likely to get up. Williams threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns, including a step-up-in-the-pocket 52-yard beauty to Marvin Mims. He also flashed a poise that belies his age, which is something Rattler hasn’t shown consistently. Williams arrived at OU as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the class, and it’s more likely he unseats Rattler and sends him to the Transfer Portal than him retreating back to the bench.

The parlor game of where Rattler could transfer already began on Saturday afternoon. Georgia? UCLA? Washington? Arizona State? Arizona? Miami? Notre Dame? Texas A&M? Tennessee? Penn State? (It’s hard to imagine the high-end NFL interest still being pronounced.)

This is a microcosm of where football is heading. Find a stage, stake your spot and then move on if you lose it.

After Williams entered the game down 28-7 and delivered a historic comeback, it’s up to Rattler to author a comeback of his own. And that's a bigger deal than OU upstaging Texas on the Red River stage.

A likely story

Perhaps the highest compliment we can pay to Coastal Carolina is that it's turned winning into an expectation. The Chanticleers haven't lost in the regular season since November of 2019, when they fell at Louisiana-Monroe while sputtering through a forgettable 5-7 season.

Coastal Carolina has coasted to a 6-0 start this weekend, and the surprise team of 2020 hasn't surprised anyone with the success. They've blended into the sport's elite and seamlessly as a mullet resting amid shoulder pads.

After blasting Arkansas State in Jonesboro on Thursday, No. 15 Coastal heads into a bye week with a chance to be near Top 10 when it plays at Appalachian State (4-1) on Oct. 20 for a Wednesday showcase game that could well be the Sun Belt's biggest stage of the regular season.

Coastal entered the weekend with the country's No. 2 scoring offense (48.8), the nation’s most efficient passing offense and DC Chad Staggs' defense ranks No. 9 in scoring defense (15.0). Coach Jamey Chadwell said it's rewarding that his team is now an accepted part of the college football mainstream.

"That’s good," he said by phone on Saturday. "People are saying, 'Hey, OK. They're not a fluke. They've won games.' That's going to help us in the long-term."

Chadwell doesn't have any illusions of Coastal Carolina crashing the four-team College Football Playoff. And he acknowledges that Cincinnati has outflanked them again in the conversation for the New Year's Six Bowl.

Chadwell acknowledged that early this season he felt his team pressing for the perfection that would be required of such lofty goals. Coastal struggled for portions of wins against Kansas and Buffalo. But since the Buffalo road trip, the Chanticleers have found a groove and won three consecutive games by an average of 45 points per game.

"I thought we were trying to live up to some of the expectations and outside noise instead of just playing," Chadwell said. "After the Buffalo game, we're trying to get back to not worrying about this or that – worrying about a ranking and worrying about winning by this much. I like where we’re at."

On Thursday night, Chadwell liked what he saw from his star tight end, Isaiah Likely. He caught eight passes for 232 yards, an astounding total for a tight end. He also caught four touchdown passes, including a 99-yarder from star quarterback Grayson McCall.

Likely flashing to that caliber was a boon to his NFL draft stock, as evaluators had already tabbed him as one of the country's top tight ends. Chadwell marveled at his versatility, as the highlights for the coaching staff transcended the four touchdowns.

"He's a true combo guy," Chadwell said. "He's a blocker and physical. We had some long runs on Thursday, and a lot of those were him lead blocking on them. He's such a great mix of that. He's hard to match up with."

A Big 12 revival

One of the season's most under-appreciated stories comes thanks to one of the most understated coaches. Baylor's Dave Aranda's 2020 debut as a head coach underwhelmed, as Baylor went 2-7, Aranda fired offensive coordinator Larry Fedora and Aranda essentially admitted after the season that he endured a steep learning curve as a head coach.

With a blowout of West Virginia in Waco on Saturday, Aranda has quietly authored one of the sport's most impressive turnarounds. Baylor is 5-1 and with home games against BYU and Texas the next two contests on the schedule, the Bears have a chance to plant themselves firmly in the Top 25. (They should get there this week after the WVU win.)

Aranda has executed in a style all his own, as a 13-minute call with Aranda on Saturday after the win yielded references to Ted Lasso, the Berenstain Bears and how life continues to imitate high school long after high school.

Aranda is a genuinely thoughtful soul who transcends cliché, which made the lack of personal connection taking a job just before the start to the pandemic such a challenge.

"I was very much a stepdad," Aranda said. "I wanted to be a dad. I was following a really strong coach and leader in Matt Rhule, who did a great job here. And me coming in, [seeking] one-on-one conversations with guys and relationships with guys. Getting to know the person drives the player, and really having a personal relationship. That was difficult at times trying to do off phone or Zoom."

Aranda found it much easier to connect with his team when he could get to know the players in person. He also learned a lot about hiring staff, and the revelation this season has been Jeff Grimes installing the RVO – Reliable Violent Offense. (He also complimented he and offensive line coach Eric Mateos for coming and not thinking that Baylor could be a "trainwreck" after the tough opening year.)

"It's easier to hire a coach when you are hiring them for what he does," Aranda said, speaking generally. "It's difficult when you’re hiring for who he is. That's the major difference."

It has emerged on the field. Baylor has gone from No. 118 in total offense to No. 28, averaging 448.6 yards per game.

And it's earned them a big stage on Saturday, despite No. 10 BYU getting upset by Boise State. Aranda said he's happy for players like starting quarterback Gerry Bohanon, who has 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions after throwing for four against WVU on Saturday.

"I think of a guy who had a chance to leave and didn't and fought for a job at a school that he loves," Aranda said. "He fought so hard in the dark for a chance to be in the light."

The light will come this weekend for 5-1 Baylor. As the darkness of the early part of Aranda's tenure appears to be a distant memory.  

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