Will an SEC challenger emerge for Alabama?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college sports (Life Champions trophies sold separately in Knoxville, where they’re still buzzing about that huge, four-point victory over Massachusetts):

More Forde-Yard Dash: Anthem protests | ’16 hire heat check | Harbaugh’s complaints

SECOND QUARTER: SEARCHING THE SEC FOR AN ALABAMA CHALLENGER

When Alabama squashed Vanderbilt 59-0 Saturday, racking up the largest yardage differential in program history (599), you could almost hear the despair spreading across the South. It was the Crimson Tide’s 18th straight league victory, and 26th straight against a team not coached by Hugh Freeze. The last time an SEC opponent not coached by Freeze even came within single digits of the Tide was October 2015.

Given the underwhelming season start by the rest of the SEC West, The Dash wondered exactly how prohibitive a favorite Alabama will be for the rest of the regular season. Todd Fuhrman and Todd Payne of Bet The Board provided an answer.

As of Monday, Fuhrmann and Payne have established the Tide as a double-digit favorite in every remaining regular-season game – and in only three games do they see ‘Bama favored by fewer than 20 points. Those three, in chronological order:

LSU (11) plus-16 at Alabama on Nov. 4. The annual testosterone-laden showdown of NFL talent has skewed in ‘Bama’s favor – the Tide has won six straight, longest winning streak in the series for either side since the 1970s. A 16-point spread would be the largest in the series since Mike Shula was at Alabama and the Tide were 17-point underdogs. The Dash has little confidence Ed Orgeron can figure out a way to keep this one close in Tuscaloosa.

Nick Saban’s Alabama team looks pretty well unbeatable again this season. (AP)

Mississippi State (12) plus-16½ in Starkville on Nov. 11. The Bulldogs catch the Tide at an opportune time and in the right place: at home, coming off a walkthrough against UMass and with ‘Bama one week removed from the LSU game. Until last year, Alabama had had a long run of slow starts (particularly offensively) the week after playing LSU. Despite all that, it’s hard to foresee a Mississippi State team that was outmanned at Georgia rising up to beat ‘Bama. (Covering the spread is another matter entirely.)

Auburn (13) plus-10 ½ in Auburn on Nov. 25. Eight games and two months from now is where it might finally get interesting. This is a bitter grudge match, and although Gus Malzahn has lost three straight in the series, he does have one Nick Saban skin on his wall – the Kick-Six game of 2013. If the Tigers continue finding themselves (last week at hopeless Missouri was a start), they should put up a fight on The Plains.

Realistically, though, the only foreseeable serious challenge for the Crimson Tide is Georgia in a potential SEC championship game matchup. But the Bulldogs have to get there first. You might as well advance Alabama to that game now.

COMEBACK QUARTERBACKS

We all know that quarterback is the most demanding position in football, and that only one guy can play it at any given time, and that the road to success at that position rarely runs smooth. With a single bad Saturday that often comes down to a few bad throws, QBs can fall out of favor with coaches and fans. Which is why mental toughness is necessary to survive bad games, demotions, injuries and public outrage – and to be ready the next time you get a chance to shine.

The Dash salutes five resilient quarterbacks who have made comebacks of sorts this season:

Luke Del Rio (14), Florida. Where he was: Starting QB for the Gators for half of 2016. Where he went: The training room, and ultimately under the knife. Del Rio started the first three games last year, missed two with a knee injury, came back as a much less effective passer, injured his shoulder against Arkansas, came back later that game and tried to play through it, then missed the rest of the season. He had surgery on the shoulder in January, missed spring practice and was widely considered an afterthought in Florida’s August quarterback competition. Where he is now: Del Rio started the season third string behind Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire, and didn’t play in the Gators’ opening two games against Michigan (loss) and Tennessee (win). But with Florida in danger of losing Saturday night to Kentucky for the first time since 1986, Jim McElwain turned to Del Rio in the third quarter to relieve an ineffective Franks. The result was two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to pull out the victory. Where he’s headed: Monday, McElwain said Del Rio will start Saturday against Vanderbilt.

John O’Korn (15), Michigan. Where he was: Starting QB at Houston in 2013 and the first part of ’14, seemingly half a lifetime ago. Where he went: After O’Korn lost the starting job to Greg Ward, he transferred to Michigan and sat out 2015. Then he was beaten out for the starting job last year by Wilton Speight. O’Korn started one game when Speight was hurt and otherwise saw only mop-up duty. Where is he now: This year was progressing in the same manner for O’Korn, caddying for Speight, even though the starter hasn’t performed at a high level. Then Speight was injured early Saturday against Purdue, and O’Korn wound up completing 18 of 26 passes for 270 yards – his biggest day since September 2014. O’Korn endeared himself to Michigan fans by getting the Wolverines into the end zone from the red zone, where they had struggled badly with Speight this season. Where he’s headed: Michigan has the luxury of a bye week before facing Michigan State, so don’t expect clarity anytime soon from coach Jim Harbaugh. On Monday he said Speight “wouldn’t be able to play” if Michigan had a game this week. As for who will start in two weeks against Michigan State: “We’ll assess it as we go.”

Kenny Hill (16), TCU. Where he was: The starter and presumed post-Manziel savior for half a season at Texas A&M in 2014 as a sophomore, then a suspended problem child. Where he went: Hill transferred to TCU. After sitting out 2015, Hill was an inconsistent and turnover-prone starter for the 6-7 Horned Frogs last year. Where he is now: Still the starter at TCU, but a much more popular one after leading the Frogs to a 4-0 start highlighted by an upset romp at Oklahoma State Saturday. Hill currently has a career-high pass efficiency rating of 162.2, and he’s reduced his interceptions to one every 39 throws thus far. Mostly, TCU has helped Hill by relying on a potent running game and reducing his pass attempts to fewer than 30 per game on average. Where he’s headed: Into a home game against West Virginia Saturday.

John Wolford (17), Wake Forest. Where he was: A 33-game starter at Wake, despite decidedly modest production. Where he went: To the presumed backup job heading into fall camp. Coach Dave Clawson said Kendall Hinton came out of spring practice on top of his depth chart, with Wolford demoted to second string. Then, six days before the season opener, Clawson surprised a lot of Wake fans by announcing that Wolford had regained his starting job. Where he is now: Third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in pass efficiency with a 160.5 rating, 32 points higher than his career best for a single season. Wake is 4-0 and Wolford has yet to throw an interception this year, after 35 of them in his first three seasons. Where he’s headed: Into a big home game against reeling Florida State.

Kellen Mond (18), Texas A&M. Where he was: Doubted and benched two games into his college career after a rocky start to this season. Mond replaced injured Aggies starter Nick Starkel in the opener against UCLA and helped aid the Bruins’ miracle 34-point comeback by completing just 3 of 17 passes (blame the A&M coaching staff for having a true freshman throw that many times while holding a lead). Mond started the following week against FCS Nicholls with uninspiring results, and was pulled for senior Jake Hubenak, who was more efficient than the freshman. Where he is now: Hubenak came out of the Nicholls game with an injury, which thrust Mond back into the job – and he’s starting to flash his considerable potential. He passed for 301 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette Sept. 16, then produced 325 yards of total offense in a wild shootout win over Arkansas. His accuracy remains fitful, but Mond is now making plays. Where he’s headed: Into a home game against South Carolina.

There is still a chance for Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (19) to join the list. He’s never actually gone anywhere, and unless he’s injured he almost assuredly won’t leave the starting lineup. But plenty of Buckeyes fans wrote him off and called for a quarterback change after what was supposed to be an improved Ohio State passing game limped out of the gate looking every bit as lame as it ended last year with Barrett making the throws. Since the loss to Oklahoma in the second week, Barrett has seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in 50 attempts. The 270.9 efficiency rating he put on the board against UNLV Saturday was the highest of his career as a starter – but it was against UNLV. Barrett’s pseudo-comeback as a passer will be judged far more on what he does in Big Ten play, most importantly against the likes of Penn State and Michigan.

STAT OF THE WEEK

How quickly can things change in college football? Consider the only two winless teams in Power Five conferences. Baylor (20) won 10 games two years ago and Florida State won 10 last year. Yet right now they’re a combined 0-6.


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