In this week's Cover 3, I'm looking at a possible changing of the guard in the state of Florida this weekend, the reveal of some false positives (and negatives) early in the season and most telling play in Georgia's win over Tennessee.
1. A game for the state of Florida
The state of Florida belongs to the Seminoles. It has for a while. More specifically, it has since Jimbo Fisher took over as head coach. In the years immediately preceding Fisher's tenure, FSU was paying rent in Gator Country while watching Urban Meyer win national titles in 2006 and 2008. In 2009, Florida State went 0-2 against Florida and Miami, something it also did in 2004 and 2007.
But with the hostile takeover of the state under Fisher, Florida State is 13-1 against the other two Florida heavyweights. He's had the best recruiting class in the state five of the last seven years. He's also won a national title and four conference titles while Miami and Florida have done neither over the same stretch.
If Fisher's reign over the state comes to an end, we'll look back at this Saturday as the tipping point. That's when Miami heads to Tallahassee as three-point favorites over a 1-2 Florida State team that was fortunate to get past Wake Forest last Saturday.
A Miami win would give Fisher his first loss to the Hurricanes in his head coaching career. That alone doesn't change the equity breakdown in the state. Slip ups happen and every streak comes to an end. But there are other factors at play that point to a Miami win being a bigger indicator of things to come.
This isn't Al Golden's Hurricanes. It's not Randy Shannon's either. Mark Richt is a proven major-college head coach and he has Miami on a different trajectory. Off to a 3-0 start to the season, Miami looked impressive last weekend against Duke. The defense was dominant, the offense was in rhythm, and the game was never in doubt. Miami looks like a threat to last.
Last year, Miami boasted one of the most impactful freshmen classes in the country. Two more freshmen are starting on what is currently the No. 11 offense in college football this fall. The defense is powered by three sophomores at linebacker and some emerging talent at defensive line. This team's core is back again next fall with either Malik Rosier or talented youngster N'Kosi Perry under center.
Miami is currently on pace to have the highest ranked recruiting class in the state of Florida (it's ranked No. 4 in the country at this time, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings for 2018). If those rankings hold come National Signing Day, the Canes would win the state for the first time since 2008.
It's not time to kick dirt on Florida State's grave yet. Quarterback Deondre Francois is hurt and will be back next season. James Blackman is a talented true freshman. The defense is stacked and the nation's No. 1 running back in the 2017 class is posed to breakout in the backfield. A win in Tallahassee pokes a huge hole in the Miami narrative and keeps Jimbo on the throne for another year and maybe even beyond. However, a Miami win could mark the beginning of a new reign.
2. The most revealing play in Georgia's stomping of Tennessee
There are a lot of differences between this year's Georgia and Tennessee football teams, and 41 points is one big difference in score. But if you were watching closely on Saturday, there were indications well before the game got out of hand that these two teams were operating on different levels.
To me, one of the biggest indicators came with just under four minutes remaining in the first quarter. It was Tennessee's ball around midfield with an important 3rd and 2 pending. Tennessee lined up in the shotgun and threw incomplete to bring up fourth down. The play call spoke to Tennessee's lack of confidence in the run game; the stop spoke to Georgia's dominance on third down (the Vols were limited to 1 of 12 that afternoon). But what really caught my eye was what happened after the whistle.
Georgia defensive lineman Tyler Clark was handled on the play by Tennessee true freshman guard Trey Smith. Center Jashon Robertson came over to help, the two gave Clark a little more than he bargained for, and as the whistle blew, the interaction devolved into some pushing and shoving. It was nothing blatant, nothing egregious, but it drew flags.
When Clark threw a late shove and a flag came out, the sophomore got bum-rushed by his teammates. No less than five Georgia defenders were all over him scolding him, escorting him to the sideline, presumably cussing the kid out. Georgia coach Kirby Smart actually had to wade through five of his own players to get his own bite out of the defender. Smart's contribution wasn't even necessary. I think he had already gotten the point.
To me, that exchange spoke volumes about the expectations of the Georgia defense and the amount of players ready to hold teammates accountable to meet those expectations. The Bulldogs' starting unit is almost entirely third-, fourth- or fifth-year players -- and it shows. Add that experience to an offense with leaders like Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, who both returned despite NFL opportunities, and Georgia has the leadership makeup to have special season this fall.
But the play told me something about Tennessee, too. Turn on the film of that Georgia game and you see a lot of Vols getting physically dominated on both sides of the ball. One exception that consistently flashed was that true freshman in the scuffle. Trey Smith battled against Georgia, and on the rare occasions that UGA's defense was gashed, Smith was usually involved.
While the Bulldogs were busy scolding their teammate for jeopardizing their perfect defense, the Vols should've been following Smith's lead. Despite his age, Smith plays with the kind of scrappiness and competitiveness that Tennessee is lacking. He's looking for a street fight every play while some of his teammates are running from it.
3. How perspectives can quickly change
When Mississippi State rolled up LSU for a 30-point win, we thought we were looking at a new contender in the SEC West. When Notre Dame lost to Georgia in an offensively challenged game, we might have been watching a pillow fight between a couple of future 8-4 teams.
Just a couple of weeks later, how our perspectives have changed. Georgia's stomping of Tennessee and Mississippi State along with Notre Dame's subsequent success has retroactively turned that game into a possible top-10 slugfest. Would anyone be surprised at this point if we are looking at some combination of 10-2 and 11-1 between these two teams by the end of the regular season?
The context that followed Mississippi State's win over LSU is just as revealing. The Bulldogs were dominated every bit as thoroughly in their losses to Georgia and Auburn as they were dominant in their win over LSU. Now that LSU has been dealt a loss to Troy after its lackluster win over Syracuse, it's clear that the 37-7 win in Starkville, Mississippi, said much more about the state of LSU's program than the rise of Mississippi State.
More false positives and negatives are out there. We just haven't received the context to identify them yet.
NC State produced a win in Tallahassee that looked impressive at the time, but what do we really know about a 1-2 Florida State team that almost lost to a Wake Forest team that outgained them by nearly 100 yards?
Virginia Tech was easily handled at home by Clemson, but we still don't have any question that the Hokies are a good football team due to that impressive Week 1 outing against West Virginia. But should that inspire confidence? The Mountaineers let Kansas hang around last week and haven't played an opponent of note since that opening week game. We'll find out what they're about when they travel to face TCU on Saturday.
What about Michigan? While that defense was dominant in shutting down Florida in the season opener, the Gators are about as unimpressive as a 4-1 team can look heading into this week's game against LSU, while Michigan hasn't earned any style points in wins over Air Force, Purdue and Cincinnati. This weekend's game against Michigan State may be the toughest game yet for Harbaugh's group.