By RALPH D. RUSSO
Hold up on handing Tua Tagovailoa the Heisman Trophy.
The Alabama quarterback looked only OK in the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s shutout of No. 18 Mississippi State . And a chronically cranky knee again kept him from finishing the game. After tearing through the first two months of the season with what looked like one of the great offenses in college football history, Alabama now looks like the 1985 Chicago Bears.
This all still bodes well for the Crimson Tide’s national championship hopes. Drop 50 or allow nothing. Alabama is capable of either. But Tagovailoa’s pedestrian effort (14 for 21 for 164 yards with a touchdown and an interception) against a good Mississippi State defense could make Heisman voters take another look at other candidates — like No. 6 Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.
Murray’s numbers have stacked up well to Tagovailoa’s throughout the season, but the Tale of Tua has been tough to top. The sophomore has been piling up touchdowns while not even needing to take a snap in the fourth quarter. Tagovailoa is up to 28 touchdown passes on the season, with just two picks. He will probably take next week off when Alabama takes its November FCS break against The Citadel. Then the Iron Bowl and SEC championship game against No. 5 Georgia will provide more than enough opportunity for Tagovailoa to wrap up the third Heisman of Nick Saban’s tenure. The Tide never had a Heisman winner until Mark Ingram won it in 2009 and Derrick Henry took it in 2015.
Murray, meanwhile, had another huge game, throwing for 349 yards and running for 66 in a wild Bedlam victory against Oklahoma State . West Virginia’s Will Grier is still hanging around the Heisman race, too. He had three touchdown passes in a blowout of TCU . And there is Washington State’s Gardner Minshew, who has the Cougars pointed toward a Pac-12 title after throwing for 335 yards and two TDs against Colorado . Having the most famous mustache in the college football should help get Minshew to New York as a finalist.
Murray’s escape against Oklahoma State means the Sooners and Mountaineers are still on target for a first-place showdown in Morgantown the day after Thanksgiving.
Of course, the bigger concern for Alabama is not the Heisman but Tagovailoa’s balky knee which seems to send him into the sideline injury tent every week.
“Tua got hit low a few times out there today,” Saban said after the game. “I think he’s OK.”
No. 8 Ohio State seemed to get its defense back in order in what turned out to be a lopsided victory against No. 24 Michigan State . The Buckeyes allowed a season-low 54 yards rushing, 47 on one long quarterback keeper by Rocky Lombardi, and held the Spartans to 18 for 48 passing (37.5 percent).
Give some credit to Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been a mess of missed tackles, poor angles and blown assignments, leading to big plays for opponents. Ohio State was more sound, but Michigan State’s offense is also totally dysfunctional. The real MVP for the Buckeyes was punter Drue Chrisman, who buried Michigan State at its own 6 or worse on five straight punts.
The Buckeyes get Maryland next week in Columbus before No. 4 Michigan comes to town Thanksgiving weekend in a game that will likely decide the Big Ten East and eliminate the loser from playoff contention.
Awaiting the Buckeyes or Wolverines in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis will be Northwestern. Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats put a spell on another Big Ten opponent, this time Iowa , and pulled out another weirdly ugly victory. Call in FitzMagic.
Combined with losses by Purdue and Wisconsin, the Wildcats (6-4) have their first Big Ten West title. The team that lost to Akron. The team that has outscored its opponents this season by six measly points. The team that came into the Iowa game being outgained by 20 yards per game and then proceeded to be outgained by the Hawkeyes by 27.
Northwestern, division champs.
DOES ANYBODY WANT A GREAT BOWL TRIP?
Something to keep an eye on down the stretch is what teams earn high enough rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee to fill a few at-large spots in the Peach and Fiesta bowls. The best Group of Five champion will get one of those and likely a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Unbeaten and No. 12 UCF has the inside track.
No. 9 LSU (No. 7 CFP) looks to be in good shape to secure one of those spots, whether it wins out or not. The second-best of West Virginia and Oklahoma also seems to be heading for a big-time bowl.
Who else? No. 12 Kentucky (No. 11 CFP), No. 17 Boston College (No. 17 CFP) and No. 22 North Carolina State (No. 14 CFP) all took a third loss this weekend. No. 13 Syracuse (No. 13 CFP) could be a candidate if it wins out but the Orange have to go through No. 3 Notre Dame and BC. Whoever gets that last spot is not going to look particularly impressive.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
Signs seemed to be pointing toward Southern California keeping coach Clay Helton, but losing to Cal for the first time in 15 years can change the conversation. USC faces UCLA next week … No. 19 Florida rallied to beat South Carolina and former head coach Will Muschamp behind a huge rushing day for the Gators. Dan Mullen’s team went for 367 yards on 62 carries, and 528 yards total. In four seasons with Muschamp as coach (2011-14), Florida broke 500 yards of offense in an SEC game three times … Arizona State improved to 3-0 in games decided by three points with a 31-28 victory against UCLA . Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils have games at Oregon and against Arizona left. Win them both and they are in the Pac-12 title game. … Pitt’s Darrin Hall has run for 415 yards the last two weeks after getting 186 on seven carries in a victory against Virginia Tech , putting the Panthers in position to clinch the ACC Coastal by beating Wake Forest next week. … Remember when Virginia Tech was in the Top 25? The Hokies now need to win out to extend their 26-year streak of bowl appearances. … Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver missed a third straight game with a sore knee and you have to wonder if the likely high first-round NFL draft pick will play again this season. Houston has now lost three games. The Cougars could still reach the AAC title game, but with a major bowl highly unlikely the risk of returning might not be worth the reward.