Notre Dame keeps hope alive, Illinois takes another huge step back

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Alabama has its best quarterback of the Nick Saban era. LSU has its best offense since its 2007 national championship season. Auburn has the best defensive front in the land and maybe — definitely? — the most team speed, too.

And Georgia is a monster. The Bulldogs barely scratched the surface of what they’re capable of Saturday in a 23-17 victory over Notre Dame.

The bar has been raised so high in the SEC — thanks to Saban and Alabama, of course — that the league may be stronger than ever. It has four legitimate national title contenders in 2019, and a fifth team, Florida, that’s ranked ninth in the new AP poll.

Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State — realistically speaking, that’s the entire list of teams from outside the SEC that are capable of winning it all. Yes, it’s still September, silly-early for such a statement. I’m silly, but not wrong.

On to the rest of the “Big 10” (where 10 actually means 10):

2. No shame, Notre Dame: The Irish punched above their weight in Athens, Ga., and displayed enough grit defensively to back up coach Brian Kelly’s claims about his program’s continued improvement. An 11-1 regular-season finish — even a return to the playoff — isn’t out of the question, though there’s still a talent gap between this team and the true elites.

3. #WeWillNotWin: Illinois led Nebraska 14-0, 21-7, 28-14 and 35-21 — where I come from, that’s four 14-point leads — and lost. Why couldn’t the Illini hold on? Bad defense. Bad quarterback play. And bad coaching, from Lovie Smith on down, that has to be called out.

Don’t let the 42-38 final score fool you. The Illini were outgained 671-299. That’s sorry and sad.

4. Numbers game: Don’t be fooled by Wisconsin 35, Michigan 14, either. The Badgers outrushed the Wolverines 359 yards to 40. They possessed the football for 41:07. It was the beatdown of the season in college football.

“We were outplayed, outprepared, outcoached, the whole thing both offensively and defensively,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It was thorough.”

You think?

5. Comeback ’Cats? Northwestern’s offense has faced two tests — at Stanford in the opener and at home Saturday in a 31-10 no-show against Michigan State — and failed each miserably. There will be no rousing turnaround this year up in Evanston.

6. Just spitballing here: It’s hard to say which coaches are truly on the hot seat, but Florida State’s Willie Taggart, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and, yes, Smith certainly jump to mind. Maybe they should all just switch jobs with one another and hope nobody notices.

7. Cole Kmet, your table is ready:The Notre Dame tight end, who missed the first two games after breaking his collarbone during training camp, had nine catches and a touchdown at Georgia. He’s a game changer. Put him on your NFL draft boards right now.

8. Not terrible: What a game for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who threw four touchdown passes and rushed for two more scores in a 76-5 romp over Miami (Ohio). Wait, make that what a 15 minutes — all six of those TDs happened in the second quarter. What the heck did the RedHawks do to deserve that?

9. That’s what he said: “We defended him as well as we could.”

That was Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin, the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator, talking about Fields. Maybe Martin and Smith should swap defenses and see if anybody notices.

10. And another thing: It was merely the most insane comeback ever. Winless UCLA trailed 49-17 in the third quarter at No. 19 Washington State — then went on a 50-point tear and won 67-63. Maybe coaches Chip Kelly and Mike Leach should switch defenses and hope … never mind.

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