Why Ohio State is the only team that could knock out Alabama

Nelson Chenault/Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

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During our Facebook Live wrap-up show Saturday night, Bruce Feldman threw out a curveball question that initially flustered myself and our host Kristen Balboni: Rank the three teams we think would have the best shot of beating Alabama.

My first thought was … three? Can we start with one?

We’d just finished watching the Tide suck the last drops of blood out of valiant challenger LSU, blanking the Tigers 10-0. Yes, ‘Bama went three quarters without scoring, but only the most ardent believers in SEC BIAS came away from that game unimpressed with Nick Saban’s team.

The Tide’s swarming defense held LSU star Leonard Fournette below 40 yards for the second straight year. They held the Tigers scoreless despite two Jalen Hurts turnovers on LSU’s side of the field. And their freshman quarterback weathered those mistakes and three quarters of heavy duress to eventually lead a 90-yard drive culminating in his own 21-yard touchdown run.

Alabama is not unbeatable by any means. Heck, if LSU had even an above-average quarterback to complement Fournette and that defense it might have won Saturday night.

It’s just that there’s not an obvious foil.

Surging Auburn (7-2) likely has the best remaining shot in the regular season. Running back Kamryn Pettway is averaging 192.5 yards over his last four games, while Carl Lawson and the Tigers’ defense ranks fourth in the SEC (5.0 yards per play). Still, Auburn pulling a 2016 Iron Bowl upset would be infinitely more stunning than their 2010 and ’13 wins.

So let’s turn to possible playoff opponents.

Michigan fans presumably believe their thus-far dominant team is the closest thing to Alabama’s equal. The 9-0 Wolverines sit just behind Alabama at No. 2 nationally in total defense and rank higher in total offense (No. 13 versus No. 19). After thumping Maryland 59-3 on Saturday, they are beating their opponents by a national-best margin of 37.3 points per game.

But Jim Harbaugh’s pro-style team, perhaps good enough to beat almost any team in the country, makes for a bad matchup against Saban’s team.

You’re not going to out-Alabama Alabama. Ask LSU. While Wolverines QB Wilton Speight is more formidable than LSU’s Danny Etling and their offense more imaginative in general (Jabrill Peppers as Wildcat QB), Saban’s six losses over the past five years have all come against spread offenses with quarterbacks who can run.

Which brings us to Clemson. We know Deshaun Watson can neutralize Alabama’s defense, because he did it in last year’s national title game. And most of the weapons who helped him do it – RB Wayne Gallman, WRs Hunter Renfrow and Artavis Scott, TE Jordan Leggett – are still there.

But the turnover-prone Tigers (9-0) have not inspired the same degree of confidence in 2016 as they did in 2015. Every notable game on their schedule has required an 11th-hour escape. If anything, Alabama is the elite team that could make Clemson pay for its mistakes in a way its ACC foes have not.

Though it lost to Clemson, 8-1 Louisville boasts potentially the ultimate Kryptonite in electrifying dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson. One could see the potential Heisman winner demystifying the Tide’s defense in much the same way former Heisman QBs Cam Newton (2010) and Johnny Manziel (2012) did.

Louisville’s problem is it appears increasingly unlikely to get the opportunity from the committee since Clemson is about to wrap up the ACC Atlantic.

Washington (9-0) is a potential wild-card. Chris Petersen’s team is dominating the West Coast thanks in large part to ultra-efficient QB Jake Browning (34 TDs, three INTs). I love watching the Huskies, but it’s hard for me to project how they’d fare against mighty Alabama when they have not beaten an opponent remotely of that caliber this year or even anytime in the program’s recent history.

Which brings us to my answer. The team I’d give the best shot of beating this year’s Alabama team is the same one that handed the Tide their last postseason defeat — Ohio State.

At the same time the Tide were sweating it out with LSU on Saturday night, Urban Meyer’s 8-1 team was handing Nebraska the second-worst defeat, 62-3, of any game in history between Top 10 opponents. Yes, the Huskers (7-2) were pretty obviously overrated … but not by THAT much. Just a week earlier they went to Madison and took a legit top 10 Wisconsin team to overtime.

Ohio State’s secondary flourished yet again Saturday, with safeties Damon Webb and Malik Hooker notching pick-sixes. (The Buckeyes now have a school-record six this season.) More importantly, after a month-long funk, the Buckeyes’ offense exploded Saturday behind QB J.T. Barrett and RB/WR Curtis Samuel.

Are the 2016 Buckeyes on the level of their 2014 predecessors? Not yet. But that team, like many of Meyer’s, was a lot better by the postseason than it was for much of the regular season.

Ohio State will have to knock off Michigan on Nov. 26 to even have a chance to possibly match up with Alabama. If they can get there, though, they have three key ingredients for that matchup – an elite coach, elite recruits and a dynamic dual-threat QB.

It’s a pretty simple formula.

In fact, it’s Alabama’s.

And now, a few more takeaways from Week 10 as we reset the landscape for Week 11.

Baylor football is a dysfunctional mess

On Saturday, 4-4 TCU thumped arch-rival Baylor 62-22 in Waco. Not to take anything away from the Horned Frogs, but it’s no wonder the Bears (6-2, 3-2 Big 12) imploded given the absurd level of toxicity surrounding their program. Among the lowlights:

*  Interim coach Jim Grobe said Saturday he had no prior warning that his entire staff (all former Art Briles assistants) would tweet out a joint statement the night before the game defending their former boss.

*  Amidst a school-designated “Green Out,” some fans came up with the great idea to sell black “#CAB” (Coach Art Briles) T-shirts in support of the long-since ousted coach. A #CAB banner hung from one of the stadium’s suites.

*  Star running back Shock Linwood reportedly shoved an assistant coach on the sideline Saturday. Grobe didn’t know about that either.

This always figured to be a lost season for the Bears in light of the sexual assault scandal that cost their former coach his job. But they were still 6-1 prior to the TCU game. This week they visit Oklahoma — wait and see what further drama inflicts the team prior to that one.

Penn State’s offense is soaring

James Franklin made an unconventional coordinator hire last offseason in Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead, who pledged to install an exciting, aggressive spread offense. But for the first five weeks or so, Penn State’s revamped attack seemed barely more explosive than in Franklin’s first two years.

Then it clicked.

On Saturday, the Nittany Lions (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) notched their fifth straight win, 41-14 over Iowa (5-4, 3-3). Star RB Saquon Barkley (211 total yards, two TDs) continued his recent tear, while QB Trace McSorley was a cool 11-of-18 for 240 yards and two TDs.

“We spent a lot of time in the offseason studying different schemes, different offenses,” Franklin said afterward. “This is kind of how we envisioned it, and obviously when you've got a guy like Saquon Barkley, he changes things for everybody.”

Penn State rose into the Top 10 Sunday. If it wins this week at Indiana (5-4, 3-3) it will be well on its way to a New Year’s Six bowl.

Navy knows how to win a football game

Coach Ken Niumatalolo’s program has won 21 of its last 25 games, but few sweeter than Saturday’ s 28-27 victory over Notre Dame. It’s not just that the Midshipmen rarely beat the Irish (13 times in 90 years). QB Will Worth executed the triple-option so well (running for 175 yards) that Navy limited the Irish to six possessions the entire game and salted away the final 7:28 without even scoring.

This week, the Midshipmen (6-2, 4-1 AAC) face Tulsa (7-2, 4-1). The winner takes control of the league’s West Division. Despite losing Top 5 Heisman finisher Keenan Reynolds from last year’s 11-2 squad and after Reynolds’ successor, Tago Smith, tore his ACL in the season opener, Navy is cruising thanks to Worth. A year removed from serving primarily as the team’s holder, the senior has five 100-yard rushing games.

“We are where we are right now because of Will Worth,” said Niumatalolo. “He has given our team belief, helped create an image for our football team. We’re a scrappy team that’s not going to back down from anybody. A lot of that comes from the way Will plays.”

Oklahoma is sneaking back around

Following disappointing September losses to Houston and Ohio State, the 7-2 Sooners have quietly built a 6-0 Big 12 record and slipped back into the Top 10 of the polls Sunday. QB Baker Mayfield is the nation’s second-rated passer, and the offense has survived both RB Samaje Perine’s leg injury and Joe Mixon’s suspension last week against Iowa State.

But for the second straight year, OU’s schedule has worked out such that it faces the conference’s three other ranked teams – AP No. 25 Baylor, No. 11 West Virginia (7-1, 4-1) and No. 17 Oklahoma State (7-2, 5-1) — in its last three games.

A year ago, the Sooners beat three straight Top 15 foes to wrap up the conference and a playoff berth. If they run this table, they’ll become the first Big 12 team to go 9-0 since the league began round-robin play in 2011. A playoff berth, though, would likely require multiple upsets in conference title games.

Michigan State has officially hit rock bottom

Of all the sport’s prominent flops this year – 3-6 Notre Dame, 3-6 Oregon, 4-5 Ole Miss among them – Michigan State’s is arguably the most baffling and indisputably the most precipitous. A program that went 7-1 or better in Big Ten play five of the past six seasons is now 0-6 after losing 31-27 to Illinois.

Yes, Illinois.

Saturday in East Lansing will be an unimaginably humbling moment for Spartans fans, as the defending Big Ten champs host Big Ten punchline Rutgers, both teams winless in conference play and 2-7 overall. Michigan State joined the Big Ten 63 years ago; this is the first time it has ever started 0-6.

“We can't let things get worse,” senior linebacker Riley Bullough told reporters. “They can always get worse.”

That’s hard to imagine. But if the Spartans lose to Rutgers …

Just for fun …

It hasn’t been a fun year for Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, whose team is 4-5, and following an embarrassing 20-3 home loss to BYU on Saturday, the coach snapped. A TV camera caught him afterward shouting at a heckler in the stands to “go to hell” and “get a job.”

Tuberville makes a reported $2.2 million a year. That’s not a good look. In fact, we’d encourage him to take a cue from an unpaid amateur.

Presumably this has not been a fun season for Misssouri QB Drew Lock, either. His team is 2-7 overall and 0-5 in the SEC, the latest setback a 31-21 defeat at South Carolina. So when someone in the Gamecocks’ student section threw a water bottle at him Saturday, Lock, too, could have snapped.

Instead, he did something much different. He picked it up and took a swig.

“I thought I’d try to have a little fun, show some extra emotion for the guys and, hopefully, get us a little riled up and have some fun,” he said afterward.

Of course, given it came from the student section, it’s highly probable that wasn’t water in there – but given that offense he’s playing in, maybe that’s a good thing.