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College football kickoff Week 9: Alabama is a factor even on a week off

Here’s the thought experiment of the 2018 season: If Alabama doesn’t play, does a college football weekend actually happen?

The answer, which applies to Saturday, when the defending national champions have an open date, is “of course.” It’s actually an extended weekend, with five FBS games Thursday and five more Friday.

But there’s no sign of the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC), who have imprinted a sense of inevitability on the season that’s profound even by Saban-esque standards.

Alabama leads the country in total offense, scoring offense, team passing efficiency and third down conversion rate. Its turnover margin (plus-11, or 1.38 per game) ranks sixth in FBS.

The Crimson Tide has hung 50 points on all but two of its opponents, with Texas A&M (which allowed 45) and Missouri (which surrendered 39) the exceptions.

Tua Tagovailoa, he of the 2,066 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and no interceptions, might be as certain a Heisman winner heading into November as Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was two seasons ago.

Alabama’s defense is statistically more vulnerable than years past, ranking 12th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed per game. It’s yet to record a shutout, the deepest into the season that’s happened since the 2010 team didn’t have any. There’s also been plenty of garbage time, and no one would suggest the Crimson Tide’s defense is a weakness.

This is definitely a good thing for Alabama, which has constructed a juggernaut within college football’s framework while adding the best quarterback of the Nick Saban era to the mix this year. For everyone else, it’s not good or bad. It just is.

But does that make for an interesting product? Again, Alabama fans shouldn’t complain, but others certainly could. There have been 16 semifinalists representing nine schools in the playoff era. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have accounted for 11 appearances by themselves. Given how the playoff commands so much of the spotlight, a handful of schools — Alabama as consistently as any of them — have consolidated much of the attention.

Regardless, there’s a good chance this is the final Saturday of the season that Alabama won’t suck up a bunch of oxygen. The drumbeat might be gone for one week … unless of course there’s an equally inevitable barrage of promotion for the Crimson Tide’s Nov. 3 trip to Louisiana State.

All the Big Ten’s a stage

Michigan’s 21-7 defeat of Michigan State in Week 8 probably wasn’t the most riveting game to attend. There was a weather delay of more than an hour, and Michigan’s smothering defense held the Spartans to a mere 94 total yards. Chunk plays for either team were few and far between and Michigan controlled play even if the scoreboard didn’t always suggest it.

But before the game, Michigan State’s players walked across the field with arms linked together while some Wolverines were warming up and Michigan linebacker Devin Bush responded by gouging the Spartan logo at midfield. The responses in the next few days were spot-on performances by everyone involved.

Depending on your perspective, it was either an intimidation tactic or the Spartans were simply trying to make it clear they weren’t afraid of the Wolverines. Regardless, coach Mark Dantonio might as well have rolled his eyes at it all, telling reporters Sunday the situation was “sort of juvenile.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, as he tends to, got the first and the last word and told reporters Monday that “to call that unsportsmanlike or to call that bush league is putting it mildly.”

And by Wednesday, the Big Ten had predictably wrung its hands, fined Michigan State $10,000 and reprimanded both schools and coaches.

Nov. 16, 2019, should be fun. That’s when Michigan State makes the trip to Ann Arbor, leaving more than a year for the in-state rivals to trade potshots before a rematch.

The annual reminder

The playoff committee begins releasing its weekly rankings Tuesday, which means it is time to issue the usual reminder: It’s a sorting exercise best ignored until after Thanksgiving.

With only four playoff berths, it doesn’t take a list to figure out who has a chance to make the field. An undefeated power conference team will earn a semifinal nod. An undefeated Notre Dame isn’t going to be left out. A one-loss power conference team will be in the mix. A two-loss power conference team needs a lot of help and a league title. Fairly or not, an undefeated Group of Five team probably needs a miracle.

That’s the reality of the situation. Glitzy rankings shows and endless bickering won’t change it. About the only thing that can is an expansion to eight (or 16) teams.

Five games to watch

No. 2 Clemson at Florida State (Saturday, noon, ABC): The winner of this game has claimed the ACC’s Atlantic Division in each of the last nine years and the Tigers (7-0, 4-0) are looking for their first four-game winning streak against Florida State. The Seminoles (4-3, 2-3) aren’t quite as inept offensively as they were early in the season, but Clemson could expose that weakness again this week.

No. 9 Florida vs. No. 7 Georgia in Jacksonville (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): The Cocktail Party doubles as a playoff eliminator, with the Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) in the midst of a bounce back season under first-year coach Dan Mullen. Georgia (6-1, 4-1) had an extra week to ponder a mess of a performance at Louisiana State and with a trip to Kentucky looming on Nov. 3, the Bulldogs can lock up the SEC East with victories the next two weeks.

No. 18 Iowa at No. 17 Penn State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN): It’s time to learn whether this is one of those random seasons Kirk Ferentz finds a way to coax 11 wins out of his team. There’s been little with which to quibble with the Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten), who have allowed just 99 points and suffered their only loss against Wisconsin. This game also begins a difficult three-week stretch for the Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2), who visit Michigan and play host to Wisconsin to open November.

No. 21 South Florida at Houston (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2): Take it from someone who watched Houston in person last week: Quarterback D’Eriq King and the Cougars (6-1, 3-0 American) own an exceptional offense capable of exploiting the slightest bit of space. No one should be surprised if the Bulls (7-0, 3-0) take their first loss this week.

No. 14 Washington State at No. 24 Stanford (Saturday, 7 p.m., Pac-12 Network): We’re halfway home to the perfect cannibalization of the Pac-12 North. Oregon beat Washington on Oct. 13. Washington State upended Oregon last week. Now the Cougars (6-1, 3-1), the conference’s last one-loss team, heads to the Farm to face Stanford (5-2, 3-1). If the Cardinal wins, the circle can complete itself next week when Stanford travels to Washington.

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