It has been quite a long time since Alabama looked as vulnerable, and in some ways as overmatched, as it did for the final three quarters of its 31-29 victory Saturday at Florida.
Its defense got beat physically at the point of attack and looked a step behind whatever plays Florida coach Dan Mullen was calling. Its offense stalled out a few times and needed the help of multiple pass interference calls to keep some drives going.
In so many ways, Alabama was fortunate to escape the Swamp without a mark in the loss column.
And yet, if you’re trying to create a scenario where somebody other than Alabama wins the College Football Playoff this year, the first few weeks of the season have not exactly given us a lot of options. If not Alabama, then who?
An Ohio State team with a verifiably bad defense that had another scare this week against Tulsa?
A Clemson team struggling to score touchdowns against everybody?
An Oklahoma team that couldn’t impose its will on Tulane and Nebraska?
Notoriously unreliable programs like Georgia and Oregon?
Every college football season, we reach a point where certain results seem so random that it’s impossible to make sense of where these teams stand and it’s easier to just throw your hands up and declare that everybody’s mediocre.
But this season, it’s actually happening! At least for the moment, even the good teams aren’t looking very good.
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Despite the scare at Florida, we have to operate under the assumption that Alabama is still the heavy favorite to win the national title. Why? Partly because of history and the benefit of the doubt we’ve conferred on Nick Saban after six national titles in the last 12 years. Also, beating Florida in Gainesville isn’t supposed to be easy. While it wasn’t always a thing of beauty Saturday, this was a legitimately good win and arguably the toughest game on Alabama’s schedule.
Remember, it was the third game last season when Alabama was in some trouble against Ole Miss and had to pretty much score every time it touched the ball to preserve a 63-48 win. That team turned out to be pretty decent by the end.
For Alabama’s traditional competitors, though, these lackluster performances don’t seem like one-offs. These teams appear to have major issues.
Let’s start with Ohio State, which ended up with a 41-20 win Saturday over Tulsa. But that score is deceiving. This was a seven-point game deep into the fourth quarter, and a Tulsa team that lost its first two games to UC-Davis and Oklahoma State was driving the ball into Ohio State territory until a sack with 6:49 left. Ohio State finally took a two-score lead with 3:07 remaining, then added the emphasis points with 1:50 left when Cameron Martinez returned an interception for a touchdown.
— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) September 18, 2021
Tulsa finished the game with 501 total yards, continuing a bad trend for the Buckeyes’ defense which allowed 505 last weekend in a loss to Oregon and 408 in the opener against Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is taking a lot of heat from Ohio State fans, and deservedly so. But at this point, how much can the Buckeyes really do about it? As of now, they don’t look anything like a Playoff team.
Clemson, meanwhile, looks terrific on defense. But its offense has played eight quarters against FBS competition and scored two touchdowns, including Saturday’s 14-8 win over Georgia Tech. That’s a problem.
You can understand Clemson struggling in Week 1 against Georgia. But after two more weeks of practice, you’d expect things to run a bit smoother against one of the ACC’s lightweight teams in Georgia Tech. Instead, Clemson just cannot get the field spread at all for quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who threw a bunch of short passes and completed 18-of-25 for 126 yards.
Even if you expected some issues transitioning from Trevor Lawrence to Uiagelelei, Clemson’s offense does not pass the eye test right now as a contender for anything more than the ACC title — if that.
For Oklahoma, which just missed the Playoff last season but had buzz as the team nobody wanted to play by the end, the start of 2021 has been an undeniable disappointment despite being 3-0. Something isn’t clicking for the Sooners, who were pretty lucky to survive Tulane in the season opener, then failed to put away Nebraska on Saturday before holding on for a 23-16 win as 22-point favorites. Quarterback Spencer Rattler, who came into the year as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites, threw for just 214 yards against Nebraska and doesn’t look like he’s taken a big step forward from last year.
Notre Dame, which has been a perennial playoff entrant and contender, beat Florida State and Toledo — two confirmed bad teams — by a combined six points. Iowa? Good team at 3-0, but after watching them put up 173 offensive yards in a win over Iowa State, let’s be realistic about the Hawkeyes’ limitations.
Oregon made its statement by winning at Ohio State last week, but the Ducks have been one of college football’s biggest teases the last few years — and remain oddly unimpressive against weaker competition. After barely getting by Fresno State in Week 1, they were only up 10 on Stony Brook at the half this week.
There are certainly other teams that could work their way into the conversation. Georgia has looked very good, but its 10-3 win over Clemson from the season opener doesn’t look quite as impressive now as it did then. Perhaps we’ll look back weeks from now and be able to say that Florida deserves to be among the contenders — and perhaps worthy of another shot at Alabama in the SEC championship game.
It’s still early and things can change drastically as teams figure out who they are. But at the one-quarter mark of the regular season, the gap between Alabama and everybody else looks bigger than ever.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Alabama remains team to beat despite close call