College football games, Week 10: QB whisperer Dan Mullen has Florida poised to unseat Georgia in SEC East

No. 8 Florida will win the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, but not because coach Dan Mullen has gone full-on sideshow in recent weeks. To recap, the Gators coach has advocated for a full Swamp in the middle of a pandemic and got fined $25,000 by the SEC for violating sportsmanship bylaws following an ugly brawl against Missouri. The night of that game, Mullen conducted his postgame Zoom dressed as Darth Vader. (Hey, it was Halloween.)

“You gotta have fun,” he said.

Yes, Mullen has come off the top rope a lot lately. But that’s distracting from what’s at hand.

Florida will beat No. 5 Georgia because Mullen continues to be the best molder of quarterbacks this side of, well, who? Try to name a better quarterbacks coach. This skill endures at an especially key time for the Gators.

Nick Saban essentially told ESPN two weeks ago that offense wins championships. Think about that. Maybe the greatest coach of all time has changed not only his offense in recent years but also his mind.

If you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a chance. If you’ve got pass catchers, you’ve got a better chance. If you can outscore everyone, you can win it all. (See, LSU in 2019 and perhaps Alabama in 2020). That applies now more than ever in Florida-Georgia.

The Gators certainly have a quarterback in Kyle Trask. They certainly have a pass catcher, perhaps the best in the nation in tight end Kyle Pitts. Georgia isn’t elite at those positions. At this moment in college football, that just might be enough for Florida to win the biggest game on its calendar.

Georgia’s defense is typical of one assembled by Kirby Smart. It has allowed nine touchdowns this season, five of them to Alabama.

“I don’t want to say it’s just players, it’s a great defensive scheme,” Mullen said. “They have answers to the questions. … They’re different than they were last year.”

The problem with the Bulldogs is their balance. Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV can’t afford to be what he has been — a guy who has thrown five interceptions in the last two games.

Last year, Georgia beat Florida for the third time in a row and sixth time in the last nine years. There’s the mental part of getting over a rival that has had the upper hand lately. But nothing about this season makes sense. Florida already has lost to Texas A&M, a possible College Football Playoff team if it wins out. The Gators have been through a protracted COVID-19 outbreak.

Once Alabama’s elite playmakers dialed in Georgia on Oct. 17, the Crimson Tide won by 17 and hung 564 yards on the Dawgs. Florida isn’t Alabama offensively, but it’s close. Certainly, there is no Najee Harris on the Gators’ roster, but they do have a bunch of guys who are more than capable runners. By comparison, there’s no Trask at Georgia. The senior has thrown 18 touchdowns in the first four games, the best start ever by an SEC quarterback in that category.

You can see the stars lining up for Florida. Yes, Georgia controlled last year’s game, limiting Florida to seven possessions. Pitts had four catches for 78 yards but was shut out in the second half. Dawgs safety Richard LeCounte was fantastic that day. This year, he is out after being injured in a motorcycle crash.

“I wouldn’t say we hit our peak yet,” Pitts said.

The implications are obvious: The winner is the de facto SEC East champion. Every other team in the division already has at least three losses. The winner gets a shot (most likely) at Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. For Georgia, that would be an unprecedented rematch.

Yup, nothing about this season makes sense.

“I’d love to be a championship team this year,” Mullen said. “… I hope I never have anybody have to call me when we have to shut down the world, how do we win a championship? I hope this is a one-time deal.”

The Cocktail Party pick? Florida 26, Georgia 23

The other big game

Clemson guard Matt Bockhorst broke down the Notre Dame game right down to its essence. He expects the No. 4 Fighting Irish to load the box against RB Travis Etienne. The ACC’s career rushing leader was held to 84 yards against Boston College. The 20 carries were the third-highest of his 50-game career.

“If I was a betting man, yeah I would [say Notre Dame will load the box]. This past game, Boston College schemed us up very well to stop the inside zone [run]. Teams know we’re an inside-zone heavy team. That’s kind of our bread and butter and our staple of our offense.”

Etienne is quietly having his best season. For the first time in his career, the senior has numbers in all four all-purpose categories (rushing, receiving, punt and kick returns). His 434 yards receiving are already a career high. His 160 all-purpose yards per game are 11th in the country. That despite Etienne’s worst seven-game rushing start (606 rushing yards, 86.6 per game) since his freshman year in 2017 (489 yards, 69.8 per game). You are watching a complete NFL back developing before your eyes.

And while the loss of QB Trevor Lawrence may sting for No. 1 Clemson, the presence of Etienne will make things a lot easier for freshman D.J. Uiagalelei. Speaking of Lawrence, there’s been confusion on when Clemson’s starter can actually return. Following his 10-day quarantine, which has now expired, ACC rules state Lawrence must “undergo a cardiac evaluation.” You will likely see him on the sidelines Saturday night, though he will not be able to compete. “It’s not something you can rush,” coach Dabo Swinney told media this week. Clemson has a bye next week before playing Florida State on Nov. 21. The pick: Clemson 26, Notre Dame 18

This week in playoff shuffling

Let’s assume Clemson, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State will be slotted in for three of the four spots in the College Football Playoff. Because honestly, why not? Then who’s No. 4? Here’s a few games this week that could play a role in the CFP Selection Committee making that determination.

Houston (2-2) at No. 6 Cincinnati (5-0): The Bearcats first have to run the table. Then they would have a schedule strength that would include five currently- or formerly-ranked teams. They would likely be judged against a second team from the SEC or ACC. Coach Luke Fickell’s offense has exploded the last two weeks. Quarterback Desmond Ridder has added explosiveness to a defensive-heavy team.

No. 9 BYU (7-0) at No. 21 Boise State (1-0): The Cougars might be the most complete team below the Power Five level. QB Zach Wilson is getting Heisman Trophy mentions. Coach Kalani Sitake has a built a swift, physical squad. The problem is their schedule, which continues Friday night. The Cougars don’t play a Power Five opponent. That’s probably enough to disqualify them if Cincinnati wins out. The Broncos won’t be slighted. This is only the seventh time this century a ranked team has visited Boise, Idaho.

No. 7 Texas A&M (4-1) at South Carolina (2-3): The Aggies might be the best position of any of the contenders. They have a friendly schedule the rest of the way. Their only loss is to Alabama. Without the muss and fuss of an SEC Championship Game, Texas A&M could be the next best-looking playoff candidate the league.

Everything else in Week 10

Pac-12 After Dark Before Sunrise: USC’s wake up call is 6 a.m. PT. The bus leaves for The Coliseum 55 minutes later. For the first time in conference history, kickoff is 9 a.m. local time for the Arizona State game. From there, it’s a seven-week sprint for the Pac-12 to try to get a season in before championship week. That season starts later than any conference. It’s also one that begins with a level of apprehension as Washington-Cal has already already canceled amid COVID-19 concerns.

On the football side: South Carolina graduate transfer quarterback Jake Bentley is in a mix of three possible starters for Utah against Arizona. We’ll know when the Utes hit the field, coach Kyle Whittingham said. Is Dorian Thompson-Robinson the next great quarterback for Chip Kelly at UCLA (at Colorado) in Year 3? No. 12 Oregon (at Stanford) has the league’s best playoff shot. Offensive line is a concern with the loss of All-American tackle Penei Sewell. Oregon State is on the rise hosting Washington State. Nick Rolovich is one three new coaches to make their debut. 

Coaching car wash: Hugh Freeze has remade himself enough that the Liberty coach will likely be headed toward a return to the Power Five despite how his tenure ended at Ole Miss. Freeze’s Flames are 6-0 with the nation’s second-longest winning streak (eight games) going to Virginia Tech. No. 25 Liberty is ranked for the first time. Keep an eye on a possible Auburn opening if the always-persecuted Gus Malzahn doesn’t make it.

Michigan’s reckoning vs. Indiana: Somehow, No. 23 Michigan is a three-point favorite at No. 13 Indiana following that mess of a performance against Michigan State. That despite Michigan being 2-20 on the road in its last 22 games vs. ranked opponents. Its last true road win over a top-15 team came in … 2006. The Hoosiers have lost 24 straight to the Wolverines dating back to 1987. If only there could be a field storming.

The wild, wild West: The lines are now open taking calls on who the Big Ten West champion will be. With Wisconsin on the cusp of being disqualified for the Big Ten Championship Game due to COVID-19 and Minnesota starting 0-2, may we present Purdue and Northwestern (both 2-0)? Purdue had the Wisconsin game wiped out this week. Meanwhile, Nebraska plays Northwestern. Time to look ahead to Nov. 14 when the division title might be on the line with the Wildcats traveling to West Lafayette.

Quick Kicks: Another wrinkle to Clemson-Notre Dame: Two of the best candidates to be the next ACC commissioner will be on hand. Athletic directors Dan Radakovich (Clemson) and Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame) have been mentioned prominently as replacements for John Swofford … two top-10 ACC teams played for the first time 39 years ago to the day — Nov. 7, 1981, No. 2 Clemson at No. 8 North Carolina … San Jose State (at San Diego State) is 2-0 for the first time since 1987. Former Arkansas and Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel is completing 74% of his passes …  Penn State (vs. Maryland) is playing its first game as an unranked team since 2016

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