Four Downs on Upset Saturday: Ole Miss Shakes SEC Foundation

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Upsets become epidemics in college football. Every few weeks each season, there’s an Upset Saturday. Week 3 provided the 2015 season’s first.

A pair of Top 10 teams lost, top-ranked defending champion Ohio State narrowly escaped a stiff challenge from Northern Illinois and a host of games either came down to the final possession or went to overtime(s).

First Down: SEC Power Structure Shifts

Five of the last six SEC championships went through the Iron Bowl, with each winner in the annual rivalry between Alabama and Auburn effectively determining the conference. The one season it didn’t, when LSU won the conference in 2011, Alabama beat the Tigers for the BCS championship.

The Iron Bowl’s rise in importance on the championship landscape helped fuel the perception of the SEC as college football’s premier conference and made Paul Finebaum a national personality.

Most pundits — myself included — believed the 2015 SEC West (which means the SEC itself) would come down to the Iron Bowl. It very well still could, but after Saturday, I’d be shocked.

In many ways, Alabama and Auburn’s conference losses on Upset Saturday feel like the end of an era.

LSU proved rather emphatically Auburn’s offensive sluggish performance against Louisville and near-miss against Jacksonville State weren’t aberrations: Auburn is just a bad team.

Much of the preseason hype for the Tigers centered around two assumptions: Jeremy Johnson would flourish at quarterback and Will Muschamp will instantly click as defensive coordinator.

Neither has come to fruition, though in Johnson’s case, that’s something of an understatement.

Head coach Gus Malzahn lavished praise on the quarterback before the season, which is increasingly looking like a smoke-screen or device to build the quarterback’s confidence.

To call Johnson’s first three games underwhelming is an understatement. To say that he’s the least effective starting quarterback Malzahn’s had in four seasons as a head coach also fails to detail just how badly Johnson’s failed to meet expectations.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a Vine is worth five digits.

Alabama’s struggles are much more relative than Auburn’s. The Crimson Tide may well win 10 games — again — and be in the hunt for the SEC championship — again.

However, Nick Saban established the Tide as college football’s preeminent squad over the last half-decade. Alabama’s still good, but hasn’t quite appeared to be that same level of great since at least the 2013 Iron Bowl.

There is no gray area about Saturday’s game in Tuscaloosa: Ole Miss was the better team. Better defensively, better offensively, more talented.

That isn’t to call Ole Miss the better program, mind you. Hugh Freeze must win an SEC West, then a conference championship, then a national championship to be anywhere near the big-picture conversation with Saban.

But, for this season, the road through the SEC does not pass through the state of Alabama.

Second Down: Building Faith in Notre Dame

Touchdown Jesus, you’ve won a convert. I rode the Georgia Tech bandwagon into the 2015 season, believing a more veteran defense would elevate the Yellow Jackets from ACC to national title contenders.

Essentially, my faith in Georgia Tech was predicated on the same principles that prompted high expectations for Notre Dame from a variety of sources.

Of course, lofty expectations for Notre Dame aren’t new. The Fighting Irish actually meeting them are.

Despite continued adversity in the form of injuries, Notre Dame is 3-0 with a come-from-behind defeat of Virginia, and a thoroughly dominant showing against my preseason pick to win the ACC, Georgia Tech.

The Notre Dame defense that earned so many commendations throughout the offseason slowed one of the trickiest and most prolific offenses in the nation, and did so with a plethora of injuries.

“Our defensive plan was outstanding,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly in his postgame press conference, via UND.com. “Seeing it come to fruition, seeing it come together, seeing your kids really play with confidence. That’s what we asked them to do, to play with some confidence today. I think that was the fun part today.”

That plan starts with coordinator Brian VanGorder, a man directly connected to Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. VanGorder had the unfortunate task of succeeding Johnson at Georgia Southern, where the former Div. I-AA powerhouse staked its identity on the scheme.

VanGorder abandoned the option, and the Eagles’ subsequent struggles meant Georgia Southern quickly abandoned him.

If for one day, VanGorder stepped out of Johnson’s shadow, and was instead the one casting a shadow. Notre Dame must repeat Saturday’s effort against much different offenses for the remainder of the season: Clemson, USC, Stanford.

But, as Touchdown Jesus as my witness, I now believe in this Notre Dame team as a viable Playoff contender.

Third Down: Get To The Point

No, I’m not summarizing the thoughts of some of my readership. The above subhead is a pun — whether it’s clever is debatable — capturing the

A common gripe about college basketball is its lack of offense. Football has no such problem. Run down the scores from Saturday’s action, and quite a few don’t look all that different from what you might see on a basketball docket.

UTEP beat New Mexico State Saturday, 50-47 in overtime. Tim Floyd’s Miner basketball team held off Marvin Menzies’ Aggies in similar fashion last November, 77-76.

The basketball version of the Rio Grande Rivalry outpaced the football edition by 56 points, and was relatively high-scoring by today’s college basketball standards.

However, UTEP shot around 47 percent from the floor, and NMSU a torrid 55 percent. Together, they scored on roughly half their possessions.

UTEP football had a stretch Saturday in which it scored on 6-of-8 possessions.

Southern Miss outlasted Texas State in a 56-50 shootout. The Golden Eagle basketball team failed to score 56 points nine times last season, and tallied exactly 56 twice.

And that’s to say nothing of the blowouts in which one team hung an extravagant number on an overmatched opponent. Oklahoma State scored 69 on UTSA; Arkansas State put up 70 on Missouri State.

MTSU ripped off 73 points — in a conference game, no less — the program’s highest total in almost nine decades.

Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post documented coaches’ thoughts on the possibility of a 100-point game. Among those quoted in his story is Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, one of the game’s innovative offensive minds.

His Wildcats scored 77 points Saturday, the program-high in his tenure and 0.4 points more than Sean Miller’s Pac-12 title-winning hoopers won last winter — and the Wildcats were the 20th-most prolific scoring team in college basketball!

Backup quarterback Jerrard Randall demonstrates a textbook fastbreak to notch six of the weekend’s highest final output.

Fourth Down: Kliff Kingsbury’s Mic Drop

Last week, I compared Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema to Simpsons bully Nelson Muntz. Bielema figuratively pointed at the rest of college football and let out Nelson’s signature “HA HA!” when assessing the strength of an SEC schedule against the rest of the nation.

Well, in this analogy, Kliff Kingsbury paid homage to one of my all-time favorite Simpsons episodes ever, “22 Short Films About Springfield.”