The Football Informant: Trial By Fire

This weekend provided drama in game after game, as each of the four undefeated teams at the top of college football received their sternest test of the season so far. Oregon and Kansas State emerged with comfortable victories in the end, while Alabama and Notre Dame had narrow escapes. We learned a lot about the major contenders, while they only increased their distance from the rest of the pack.

Alabama and LSU provided a titanic clash that validated their status among the nation’s elite. LSU effectively dominated the first 58 ½ minutes of the game, before Alabama launched a frantic comeback through a suddenly porous Tiger defense to win in the final minute. Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenburger played erratically, but had a run of excellence in the second half when LSU scored two touchdowns to come back from a 14-3 halftime deficit, appearing to take control of the game. In the end, however, LSU paid dearly for allowing Alabama to stick around, giving up a backbreaking late touchdown to lose 21-17. LSU struggled through a series of miscues, failed gambles, and missed field goals, and in the end Alabama was outplayed but not beaten, mostly due to the Tigers’ failings. Alabama picked up a critical win, and while they were finally challenged, they passed the test in the end.

Notre Dame’s performance was considerably less impressive, as the Irish were taken to triple overtime by an erratic Pittsburgh team that began the season with a loss to Youngstown State. While clearly the Panthers have improved since then, this should not have been a close game, given Notre Dame’s high ranking. The Irish were very fortunate to escape with the victory, as Pitt missed a reasonable game-winning field goal in the second overtime. A significant amount of Notre Dame’s luster has been tarnished with this game, and the Irish should rightfully drop back in the national title discussion.

Oregon and Kansas State took care of solid opposition despite being strongly challenged. Kansas State fought back from an early deficit against Oklahoma State, and the Cowboys hung around until after halftime before Kansas State pulled away comfortably. Oregon, meanwhile, went to the LA Coliseum and ran up 62 points on USC, the most the Trojans have ever surrendered in a game. Oregon’s defense may have performed poorly in this game, allowing USC to hang with them until the end, but the Ducks have proven that they can effectively score at will against almost any opponent. The Ducks still remain slightly behind Kansas State in my estimation, and their remaining games might not be enough to get back in the race.

At this point, the title race is reasonably simple. Alabama is effectively guaranteed to hold the top ranking as long as the Tide keep winning. Oregon and Kansas State are in a close race to the finish, but all things considered, the Wildcats will likely remain ahead of the Ducks barring a series of close finishes. Notre Dame is a distant fourth and would require two of the teams ahead of it to lose. Georgia can win the SEC East this week against Auburn; should the Bulldogs slip up, Florida will take the division. Either of these teams would likely jump over Notre Dame with a win over Alabama, and with a bit of luck or an upset of Oregon or K-State they could leap all the way to the title game. No other teams have realistic championship hopes at this point, and it would require an apocalypse of upsets for any other team to even sniff the national title. Clarity is breaking out, but as always in college football, insanity is only a Saturday away.

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