Football Recap: October 9-10, 2021

Alabama lost; Georgia's no.1; the Browns were the Browns; and the Steelers finally won

About that Alabama loss…

The big news from college football this weekend was the upset of No. 1 Alabama by an unranked Texas A&M team. The Aggies took a 24-10 lead into halftime, but the Crimson Tide roared back. Alabama led 38-31 with five minutes remaining, but the Aggies—led by backup quarterback Zach Calzada—responded two minutes later with a touchdown of their own. The A&M defense forced a quick three-and-out, giving the ball back to Calzada and the offense with 2:08 remaining, enough for an 8-play, 54-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard Seth Small field goal as time expired.

It was the first loss for Nick Saban and the Tide to an unranked opponent since Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa, ending a 100-game winning streak over unranked opponents. The 24 points Alabama allowed in the first half were the most allowed to an unranked opponent in the Saban era. The victory was enough to get the two-loss Aggies back in the Top 25, settling in at no. 21 in the AP Poll and no. 18 in the Coaches Poll.

Alabama, being Alabama, only fell to no. 5 in both polls, despite arguably having a worse loss than either no. 6 Ohio State (lost to then no. 12 Oregon) and no. 7/8 Penn State (lost to no. 3 Iowa on Saturday). When some teams lose to unranked teams early in the season, the discussion immediately becomes whether or not they’ll be in playoff contention with such a bad loss; for teams like Alabama (and Ohio State and Clemson), the reaction is *insert shrug emoji.*

I don’t disagree that Alabama would likely beat both Ohio State and Penn State at this point (certainly if the Nittany Lions are without Sean Clifford going forward), but losing to a 2-loss, unranked A&M team led by a backup quarterback is objectively worse than losing to another ranked team.

However, the loss now means Alabama will have to beat Georgia (most likely) in the SEC title game to have a shot at the playoff.

Georgia’s your new No. 1

I’ve been saying for the last three weeks or so that Georgia is the best team in the country and now they’ve got the ranking to go along with it. The Bulldogs have the best defense in the nation and have now won in back-to-back weeks without starting quarterback JT Daniels. They’ve beaten three ranked teams in the first six weeks of the season, including a 34-10 win over no. 18 Auburn this weekend and a shutout of no. 8 Arkansas on Oct. 2.

How good has the Georgia defense been? The unit is allowing an average of just 5.5 points per game. Cincinnati and Clemson are tied for the second-best scoring defense and those two teams are giving up 12.2 points per game, so the Bulldogs are allowing one less touchdown than the second-rated defenses in the country. The most points scored in a single game against the Bulldogs came in week three, when South Carolina put up 13 points.

The Bulldogs will now host the de facto SEC East division championship this weekend when the surprising no. 11 Kentucky Wildcats head to Athens. We’ll see how the Bulldogs handle the pressure of being no. 1, but if their defense continues playing the way it has, it could be a long day for Kentucky quarterback Will Levis.

Other college notes:

*Tough loss for Penn State to Iowa. Ta’Quan Roberson took over at QB for an injured Sean Clifford, who exited late in the first half. Roberson didn’t play well, but Brenton Strange missed two balls that should’ve been caught on third down. The offensive line didn’t help matters, committing eight false start penalties, seven of which occurred with Roberson in the game. The rest of the offense needed to help their backup QB; instead, the entire unit blinked at once. The play calling was also confusing. On Penn State’s only scoring drive in the second half, the Nittany Lions moved the ball by mixing in running plays for Roberson and Keyvone Lee, resulting in a field goal to give them a 20-10 lead late in the third quarter. The Nittany Lions went away from running Roberson and Lee until Iowa had taken a 23-20 lead late in the game. Iowa might have made some adjustments defensively, but the play calling was confusing otherwise. It certainly didn’t help that the offense was consistently behind the sticks due to the false start penalties.

*I don’t understand Brian Kelly’s quarterback usage, do you?

*If you move up in the rankings because you beat Nebraska by three, you might be Michigan. I think the AP voters are just scared Jim Harbaugh will sneak in their homes and stare at them creepily if they didn’t move the Wolverines up in the ranking.

The Browns are still doing Browns things

The game between the Browns and Chargers was a wild one. Neither team seemed terribly interested in playing defense, so we got an entertaining shootout to end the afternoon. Austin Ekeler scored with 3:15 remaining, but Tristan Vizcaino missed the extra point and the Chargers trailed 42-41. The Browns got the ball back and you would think that they have the perfect offense to run the ball, force the Chargers to use their timeouts, and never let Justin Herbert touch the ball again.

But, I regret to inform you, this is the Browns we’re talking about.

Instead of handing the ball to Nick Chubb, which 31 other teams would have done, the Browns—led by noted offensive genius Kevin Stefanski—chose to have Chubb sit on the sidelines, opting instead to have Kareem Hunt in the backfield. I’m not taking anything away from Hunt and believe his pass catching abilities are an important component of the Cleveland offense. But with three minutes left in the game, you hand the ball to your bell cow running back, aka Nick Chubb. Here’s what happened on that drive:

-1st & 10: Hunt 1-yard rush

-Chargers take their first timeout with 3:01 remaining

-2nd & 9: Baker Mayfield deep pass incomplete (intended for Rashard Higgins)

-3rd & 9: Hunt 3-yard rush

Total time taken off the clock: 1:13

So to recap: the Browns got the ball with 3:08 remaining and a one-point lead. They sat Chubb—who finished the day with 161 rushing yards, btw—and opted to use Hunt instead. They inexplicably threw deep on 2nd & 9, then even more inexplicably, rushed on 3rd & 9. Mayfield is your franchise quarterback and played well on Sunday, but you don’t trust him to throw the ball to pick up a first down late in the game? The Browns defense had no answers for Herbert all day, but Stefanski chose to give the ball back to the Chargers and what, allow his defense to make a stop for the first time all day?

The end result was Herbert leading the Chargers right down the field and Ekeler scoring his third touchdown of the day. The Chargers didn’t convert the two-point play, but it didn’t matter as they won 47-42.

The Browns are still the Browns until they stop doing stuff like this.

The Steelers won a game

I thought the Steelers would win this game, based on nothing but a rare moment of optimism. They scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the second straight week, with Diontae Johnson catching a 50-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger that looked very similar to the opening drive touchdown against the Packers the last week.

Ben finished with 120.9 rating, his highest since Week 4 of 2020, but the story on offense was the running game and offensive line. Najee Harris had his first 100-yard rushing game in the NFL, finishing with 122 yards on 22 carries. The much-maligned offensive line went up against the fifth-ranked run defense and held their own. Last week Joe Haeg started at right tackle in place of Chuks Okorafor, who was in the concussion protocol, and the offensive line had their best game of the season. There was some speculation whether Haeg or Chuks would start against the Broncos, but Chuks got the nod, much to the chagrin of Steelers Nation. Chuks had the game of his life, holding Von Miller to just two assists on tackles. It was an impressive performance by Chuks and the entire offensive line, who seem to be gelling after a rough start to the season.

The defense let the Broncos back into the game in the second half, which was rather disheartening. James Pierre again got burned for a long touchdown, this time a 39-yard catch by Courtland Sutton. Pierre redeemed himself with the game-sealing interception in the end zone with 11 seconds remaining. Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith had quiet days and Devin Bush left with a groin injury, so the linebacking corps has some issues. Cam Heyward continues to be an ageless wonder, batting down two passes at the line on Sunday.

The Steelers will host the Seahawks next Sunday night. The Seahawks will be without Russell Wilson and they have the 30th-ranked rush defense in the league. It’s possible the Steelers could head into the bye week at 3-3 despite rumors of their demise. I’m not going to get too excited after an 8-point win over the Broncos, but the offensive line and the running game have both looked better in the last two weeks. If the Steelers can build on that, maybe this won’t be the long, miserable season we’ve all been predicting.

Other NFL notes:

*It appears the Cowboys are actually good.

*What is up with Washington’s defense? I really thought they would be much better than they’ve been through the first five weeks.

*The Jaguars haven’t made a field goal in their first five games, an NFL first. Just when you think things couldn’t get worse for the Jags and fresh-off-a-lap-dance Urban Meyer, they do! The Jags lost to the Titans, 37-19 and are now 0-5 on the season. They’ve now lost 20 straight games dating back to last season. DUUUUVAL!