This week reflects a seismic shift in the way Alabama handles its early season. Probably figuring that life in the SEC is demanding enough — Georgia is somewhere out there, wanting more Tide hide. Nick Saban has almost never gone looking for trouble on the road in non-conference play. This time last season, the Tide was home to Mercer.
But come Saturday, Alabama will be at Texas, Hook ‘em Horns and all. The Tide hasn’t done this much heavy non-SEC lifting on the road in the regular season since a trip to Penn State 11 years ago.
So this week’s MOT list — Moments of Truth — must begin in Austin, where the eyes of Texas will be upon Alabama’s No. 1 ranking, hoping to bust it. The Longhorns haven’t taken down a top-ranked visitor since 1950.
No. 1 Alabama at Texas
There are more questions to this game than a 60 Minutes episode. Will Alabama do something about that ugly 1-7-1 all-time record against Texas, built mostly in bowl games since they haven’t met in the regular season in 100 years? Will Tide quarterback Bryce Young — who threw five touchdowns in the first half last week against Utah State — have another big day and really rev up the campaign to be history’s only second Heisman repeater (and good morning to you, Archie Griffin)? Will former Alabama offensive coordinator and Texas coach Steve Sarkisian face the inevitable fate of former Saban assistants, who are 2-25 when they go against their old boss? Inevitable, that is, unless you’re Jimbo Fisher or Kirby Smart, who both had the audacity to beat Saban last season. Will Quinn Ewers find a legal place to park? The new Texas quarterback had his car towed during last week’s Longhorn victory. The Aston Martin with the burnt orange leather, speaking of NIL deals. One wonders if the tow truck driver chuckled a bit as he hooked up the car. Odd stat, given Texas’ blue-blooded football heritage: The Longhorns are a rather pedestrian 50-47-4 all-time at home against ranked opponents.
Hawai’i at No. 4 Michigan
The outcome seems rather certain, since the Rainbow Warriors are 0-2 by a combined score of 112-27, and haven’t won on the road against a current Big Ten member since 1955. But what is going on with the Michigan quarterback spot? Cade McNamara’s 2021 season included a Big Ten championship, a College Football Playoff spot and beating Ohio State. The last feat alone would get him votes for governor. But Jim Harbaugh has decided to rotate quarterback starts early, and the Hawai’i game goes to J.J. McCarthy. Harbaugh is presumably compiling data to make a final decision on the job, so Saturday is definitely a MOT for the quarterbacks, if no other Wolverines. “Pretty unusual,” McNamara called the situation. The Warriors are traveling a long way to help Harbaugh with his dilemma — 8,920 round-trip miles, as part of the 37,000 air miles they will travel this season.
Appalachian State at No. 6 Texas A&M
Texas A&M will see Miami, Arkansas and Alabama in the next five weeks. All are ranked menaces, but none of them scored 40 points in the final 12:50 of the game like Appalachian State did last Saturday in a 63-61 loss to North Carolina that sounded as if it came out of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. There were 86 FBS teams last weekend that didn’t score 40 in their entire game. If the Mountaineers do anything like that again in College Station, they’ll be the must-see TV team of the nation.
No. 9 Baylor at No. 21 BYU
Nothing says Big 12 football like a trip to Provo, right? Well, it will soon. This will be the chance for the Cougars to show their future league — and the team that is predicted to win it this season — that they belong. They played last year in Waco and Baylor rolled 38-24, pounding the BYU defense for 303 rushing yards, so the Cougars will want to show they can be a physical match. No other FBS team in the nation might have the roster features of BYU: 40 players of Polynesian descent, seven sets of brothers, 13 sons of former Cougars and more than 30 married men.
No. 20 Kentucky at No. 12 Florida
This series often depends on the shape of the ball. Florida has beaten Kentucky 33 of their last 35 meetings in football (but not last season). The Wildcats are 107-41 all-time against the Gators in basketball. But this ain’t February. Coming off outlasting Utah, Florida has a chance to start 2-0 against two ranked opponents for only the second time in history — and the first in 40 years. They’re in the right place to do it, going 170-32 in The Swamp since 1990 by an average score of 37.8-16. And they’re 20-1 over the last 21 home games against Kentucky. But Wildcat football has grown beefier under Mark Stoops, who in his 10th season has quietly become the second longest tenured coach in the SEC, behind only Nick You Know Who. Stoops just collected his 60th Wildcat victory, matching the school all-time record with some guy named Bear Bryant. A win Saturday — this is only the second Kentucky-Florida game in 70 years with both teams ranked in the AP poll — would send a loud message about the Wildcats, and give them consecutive wins over the Gators for the first time in 45 years.
No. 24 Tennessee at No. 17 Pittsburgh
Pitt’s comeback Backyard Brawl win over West Virginia was one for the Panthers to celebrate. Except they can’t. No time. A hangover is not the thing to have with an SEC team coming to town. Pitt has never hosted a sitting member of the SEC but is 13-3-2 all-time against current members, and how many other programs out there can say that? Stacking a win over the Vols on the West Virginia victory would make this truly a September to savor at Pitt. The Panthers will need some defense. In its past four games going back into 2021, Tennessee has scored 60, 45, 45 and 59 points.
Iowa State at Iowa
Iowa’s offensive production in its opener against South Dakota State included two turnovers, 10 punts and no touchdowns. No crisis was declared since the defense held firm and the Hawkeyes won a pitcher’s duel 7-3 on a field goal and two safeties. It was the lowest winning score for a Big Ten team in 18 years. But here come the cousins from Ames, whom Iowa has whacked six times in a row by a combined score of 175-98. If the Hawkeyes have 10 more punts than touchdowns again, there might be a problem.
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No. 25 Houston at Texas Tech
Before the Cougars can officially be declared as the candidate to be this year’s Cincinnati, they’ll have to win in a place where their last victory was 30 years ago. One comfort for Houston is a streak of seven consecutive regular-season road wins, its longest streak since 1989. That streak seriously wobbled last week before the Cougars escaped UTSA 37-35 in three overtimes, and now comes a Texas Tech offense that scored 63 points against Murray State in its opener. The Red Raiders have beaten Houston nine of their last 10 meetings but will be without their starting quarterback.
No. 10 Southern Cal at Stanford
This will be the 101st meeting of a series that stretches back to 1905, but with the Trojans fleeing to the Big Ten, it might soon go the way of the pay telephone. The USC fans, a demanding bunch who so badly want to believe in a Lincoln Riley quickie revival, were enchanted by the 66-14 thrashing of Rice. But now comes a game in a place where the Trojans have lost four of their last five trips. This will be USC’s first taste of what hostile Pac-12 crowds have in mind to greet the lame duck Trojans, so they’ll have to get used to it. Turncoats. Traitors. Deserters. Those might be the nicest things they hear.