By RALPH D. RUSSO
A college football season truly starts with the first big upset.
No. 3 Georgia became the highest-ranked team to lose to an unranked team this season. The Bulldogs were popped 20-17 in double overtime by 24-point underdog South Carolina, which had to play its backup quarterback after halftime — on the road.
This season had felt especially stagnant for the first six weeks, with the same six teams — Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, LSU and Oklahoma — sitting at the top of the AP college football poll since preseason. Only one top-10 team had lost to an unranked team until this weekend and that was then-No. 10 Utah falling at USC. Not exactly a season-changer.
Clemson’s one-point escape against North Carolina a couple weeks ago was the closest thing to a real stunner, but an ugly win is still a win. All it cost the Tigers was the No. 1 ranking. If anything it might have been a needed wake-up call for Clemson. The defending champions certainly responded that way on Saturday against Florida State.
The Bulldogs were not so lucky. Georgia has had problems opening up its passing game this season and that turned into a major issue against the Gamecocks. South Carolina’s run defense has been stingy, anchored by star tackle Javon Kinlaw, but the Gamecocks had been susceptible to the pass. No. 1 Alabama couldn’t run it against South Carolina, either, but it didn’t matter because Tua Tagovailoa dominated.
This needed to be a Jake Fromm game. Instead, the Georgia junior and three-year starter threw three interceptions, including a pick-six, and averaged 5.8 yards per attempt on 51 passes. First-year offensive coordinator James Coley, promoted after Jim Chaney left for Tennessee after last season, will most certainly be a topic of conversation around Georgia this week.
This was also another close game that got away from coach Kirby Smart, who made at least one odd decision late in the game, passing on a 57-yard field goal try by kicker Rodrigo Blankenship at the end of regulation. Then again, it was Blankenship’s miss from 42 yards that ended it in overtime. Even All-Americans have bad days.
“We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror as coaches, as staff and do a better job. We’ve got to help our kids out,” Smart said.
What does this all mean?
First, Georgia still has the talent to make a playoff run and Fromm has been a great quarterback, but how can you not wonder if the Bulldogs would have been better off if Justin Fields did not transfer to Ohio State? The final verdict on that will probably come in January.
Second, the upset undercuts the possibility of the Southeastern Conference getting multiple teams in the playoff. The chances of that happening were probably not that good anyway. The SEC contenders look poised to pick each other off for the next couple months. No. 5 LSU handed No. 7 Florida its first loss, leaving no unbeaten teams in the SEC East. Throw in an unexpected loss by Georgia, which had its 15-game winning streak against the East snapped, and the odds of having two SEC playoffs representatives becomes remote.
Lastly, because this seems to be a topic: How does this affect No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1)? The Fighting Irish held off USC and need to run the table to stay in the conversation. The idea that somehow Georgia, which beat the Irish last month, losing to South Carolina is the thing that could keep Notre Dame out of the playoff is kind of silly.
RED RIVER DEFENSE
The Texas game got the Oklahoma defensive coordinator fired last year. This year, under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch, the No. 6 Sooners tied a school record with nine sacks among its 15 tackles for loss in a victory against the 11th-ranked Longhorns.
For the first time in forever, the Sooners might have enough defense to win a playoff game — or two.
Linebacker Kenneth Murray was everywhere and Texas managed just 310 yards and 4.24 yard per play. In two games against Texas last season, Oklahoma allowed 938 yards and 6.51 yards per play. Texas won the first meeting in 2018 at State Fair, and the day after coach Lincoln Riley fired Mike Stoops.
Dumping Stoops did not make much of a difference, but Oklahoma’s offense was good enough to win another Big 12 championship and get the Sooners into the playoff, where they got rolled by Alabama to fall to 0-3 in the CFP.
Riley hired Grinch away from Ohio State in the offseason to try to come up with a solution. Even a passable defense to combine with Riley’s almost unstoppable offenses could make Oklahoma a real threat to Alabama and Clemson.
The 39-year-old Grinch traces his roots to Division III powerhouse Mount Union. He really made a name for himself two seasons ago at Washington State. He got lost in the shuffle at Ohio State last season as co-coordinator of a defense that struggled. It’s all his show now and the Sooners finally look like a team that can win when its offense has an off day — like Saturday, when Jalen Hurts had a couple of turnovers in the red zone that kept Texas close.
“They did a really good job swarming the football,” Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger said.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: Who had Oklahoma-Texas with more defense than Florida-LSU? … At the halfway mark, who is your Heisman Trophy front-runner? Tagovailoa threw his first interception of the season — and four more touchdown passes against Texas A&M to give him a 27-to-1 ratio. Joe Burrow threw three TD passes against the Gators and is at 25-to-3 TDs to INTs. LSU is at Alabama Nov. 9. … USC is 3-3 after a difficult opening six games. The Trojans still do not have an athletic director so there is no reason to expect a move soon on embattled coach Clay Helton, but nothing has happened to stop the march toward the inevitable. … Do not pencil in another Big 12 championship game rematch between Oklahoma and Texas. No. 22 Baylor, which improved to 6-0, and Iowa State, which has won two straight since losing on a last-second field goal to Baylor, look like legitimate contenders. At least for the second spot opposite Oklahoma … No team in the country is a better bet to play a close game than No. 17 Arizona State. The Sun Devils’ latest fantastic finish came against Washington State, with freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels leading a late game-winning touchdown drive. In two seasons under coach Herm Edwards, Arizona State is 6-2 in games decided by four points or fewer. The Sun Devils have played 14 games against Power Five teams the last two seasons and all but two of them have been decided by seven points or less. … No. 8 Wisconsin now has four shutouts after blanking Michigan State. The Badgers’ defense has scored as many touchdowns (four) as it has allowed. Badgers and Buckeyes in Columbus in two weeks. … At the other end of the Big Ten, Rutgers was shut out for the third time this season and has scored just seven points in four Big Ten games. Wisconsin does not play Rutgers so we will not see if it is possible for a team to score less than zero … Louisville has doubled its win total from last season under first-year coach Scott Satterfield after dropping 62 with a freshman quarterback on previously unbeaten No. 19 Wake Forest … The biggest upset you probably didn’t notice: Bowling Green, a 26½-point underdog, beat perennial MAC contender Toledo 20-7. … The type of loss that gets a coach fired: Vanderbilt was wiped out at home by UNLV. Commodores coach Derek Mason is in trouble with his team at 1-5.