Five questions

Has the Pac-12 lost its national voice for this season?

The beatdown that Notre Dame handed USC in a 49-14 rout robbed the Pac-12 of its last marquee team and only realistic hope for the college football playoff. Sure, Washington is 6-1 and Washington State – with a strong bounce-back in a 28-0 victory over Colorado on Saturday — is 7-1, but their days as playoff contenders appear to have come and gone. And the two still have to play, meaning that 11 of the conference’s 12 teams will finish with at least two losses. At the moment, 10 Pac-12 teams already have at least two losses and seven have at least three. It may be a fun league to watch but it’s not one to be taken seriously in terms of the college football playoffs this year. Washington’s overall schedule is just too soft and Washington State will be haunted by a 37-3 loss to Cal no matter what it does the rest of the season.

 

What do we make of Notre Dame as a college football playoff contender?

The Irish are now in the conversation as a contender for a top four spot following that impressive victory over the Trojans, but need a lot of help – and need to win out. The latter means beating N.C. State on Saturday, then unbeaten Miami and always-tough Stanford. If that happens and Notre Dame is 11-1 where does that put coach Brian Kelly’s team? Without a league championship game – a key extra game – it leaves the Irish still behind Alabama and Georgia (even if the Bulldogs lose and go 12-1, since they own a 20-19 victory at Notre Dame), and needing help to jump TCU, Penn State, Ohio State, Clemson and Wisconsin. It’s not impossible to see Notre Dame cracking the top four but it means a lot of things have to fall in place perfectly for that to happen.

 

What has happened to the general quality of Big Ten football?

Penn State-Michigan turned into a 60-minute commercial for the Nittany Lions as national title contenders and Saquon Barkley as the Heisman frontrunner. But the game wasn’t much to watch. The same can be said of Rutgers’ ugly 14-12 victory over Purdue, Northwestern’s sleep-inducing 17-10 victory over Iowa, Minnesota’s equally-unwatchable 24-17 victory over Illinois and Michigan State’s return-to-the-1960s 17-9 victory over Indiana. Not one game represented good football, with the Spartans – because of their defense, not their throwback offense — the lone good team in that group. After Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, what does the league really have to offer? How about seven exceedingly mediocre-to-bad teams, plus a so-so Michigan, which isn’t what it could have been with John O’Korn at quarterback.

 

We’ll raise the old question that surfaces almost every season: Is it more difficult to go unbeaten or winless?

The unbeaten ranks now number eight teams: USF, UCF, Miami, Penn State, Wisconsin, TCU, Georgia and Alabama. With UMass and Charlotte breaking into the victory column on Saturday, the number of winless teams is down to three: Baylor, UTEP and Georgia Southern. With Baylor still having to play Kansas, the Bears should get their first victory then, given their competitiveness for most of this season. But UTEP and Georgia Southern could be staring at 0-12. The most likely team to go unbeaten? Either Alabama or Georgia and maybe TCU, though the Horned Frogs still have to play much-improved Iowa State and Oklahoma.

 

Which team has already accepted a bowl bid (yes, it’s true)?

Army is Armed Forces Bowl-bound following its 31-28 overtime victory over Temple, accepting the bid after improving to 6-2. But it’s also the way the Black Knights won that was so significant. Trailing 28-21, they drove 79 yards in the final 1:31 for the tying score, doing so as QB Kelvin Hopkins complete five – FIVE! – passes, including a 16-yard touchdown toss with one second remaining in regulation. Hopkins had been 1-of-6 passing for the season before the game, and Army had gone three games this year without completing a pass.

 

On the rise

Connecticut (3-4)

Who saw this coming? The Huskies have won two straight – beating Temple and Tulsa – after looking like a dead team during a four-game losing streak. Kudos to coach Randy Edsall.

 

Arizona (5-2)

Since electrifying Khalil Tate took over at quarterback, Wildcats have won three straight, squeaking out a 45-44 double-overtime victory over Cal on Saturday, with Tate rushing for a ho-hum 137 yards and a touchdown while throwing two TD passes.

 

Fresno State (5-2)

After early-season losses to Washington and Alabama, Bulldogs have ripped off four straight victories, with Saturday’s dominating 27-3 victory over San Diego State giving them firm control of the Mountain West’s West Division.

 

On the decline

Kansas (1-6)

Seriously, why even bother with football at this point? Jayhawks were held to 21 yards of offense and four first downs (two by penalty) by TCU in their 44th straight loss in a true road game.

 

Utah (4-3)

After opening 4-0 and hinting at making noise in the Pac-12’s South Division race, Utes have lost three straight, looking inept on offense in a 30-10 loss on Saturday to Arizona State.

 

BYU (1-7)

The Cougars’ fall from prominence has been dizzying, with Saturday’s 33-17 loss to East Carolina stamping them as one of the worst major FBS teams in the country.

 

Who’s hot

Darrin Hall, RB, Pittsburgh

Panthers entered the game against Duke with the ACC’s worst rushing attack (and 113th nationally) until Hall broke loose for 254 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.

 

Ja’Von Rolland-James, DE, Arkansas State

With 2 ½ sacks in a 47-3 rout of Louisiana, the senior now has 36 for his career – eight shy of tying Terrell Suggs’ FBS record.

 

Josh Adams, RB, Notre Dame

With 191 rushing yards (and three TDs) on 19 carries against USC, Adams reached 2,000 career yards on 316 carries, surpassing George Gipp’s school record of achieving that number in 323 carries.

 

Who’s not

Kirk Ferentz, coach, Iowa

Apparently, mediocrity is worth $4.5 million a year in Iowa. Ferentz’s Hawkeyes fell to 4-3 by losing to Northwestern. Iowa has won more than eight games just once since 2009, with Ferentz going 58-40 the past eight years.

 

Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse

Can’t dispute his guts or courage, but he wasn’t good at all in a 27-19 loss to Miami, going 13-of-41 for 137 yards with four interceptions.

 

Aaron Boumerhi, PK, Temple

After missing a 32-yard field goal try in the third quarter, he misfired on a 27-yard attempt in overtime, allowing Army to escape with a 31-28 victory.

 

Playing it forward

The top three games of the coming week

 

Penn State (7-0) at Ohio State (6-1)

Will the Nittany Lions be able to follow up their impressive rout of Michigan with a victory at the Horseshoe? QB J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes had a week off to prepare for this 3:30 p.m. Eastern start on Fox.

 

North Carolina State (6-1) at Notre Dame (6-1)

Surprising Wolfpack, who lead the Atlantic Division of the ACC, had a bye to get ready for this, putting their six-game winning streak on the line against a Notre Dame team fresh off a 49-14 drubbing of USC and making noise about being a college football playoff contender. NBC has the game at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.

 

Washington State (7-1) at Arizona (5-2)

A study in contrast at QB with Cougars’ Luke Falk and Wildcats’ dazzling Khalil Tate. Both need this game to advance their division title hopes (even though they are on opposite sides).

 

We’re adding one more as must-see TV this weekend:

 

TCU (7-0) at Iowa State (5-2)

Horned Frogs have become a dominant defensive team, with only this game and Oklahoma the remaining obstacles to the Big 12 title game and a possible unbeaten season. Cyclones have emerged as one of the country’s surprise teams, dealing Oklahoma its only loss and cruising to a 31-13 victory over Texas Tech last week.

 

Story Lines

1. Note to Poll voters everywhere: We’re watching closely and no matter what you say you have 7-0 USF ranked much too high. Sure, the Bulls have been impressive on paper, scoring 30 points or more in a record 24 straight games. But they have yet to beat an FBS team with a winning record – or even one that’s .500. San Jose State, Illinois, Temple, ECU, Cincinnati and Tulane are a combined 13-33. You don’t reward a team for playing a very bad schedule, even if that team is 7-0. Bulls belong at No. 25 at this point based on their schedule and who they have beaten. Not a spot higher.

 

2. Does any school do a better job recruiting running backs from South Jersey than Wisconsin? You remember Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman winner who set an FBS career rushing record when he was done playing for the Badgers. South Jersey kid. Then there was Corey Clement, who rushed for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. South Jersey kid. Now there’s freshman Jonathan Taylor, who tied an FBS record shared by five others for becoming the fastest to 1,000 yards rushing in a season (seven games). Taylor already has 1,112 rushing yards and 11 TDs while averaging 7.5 yards per carry. South Jersey kid.

 

3. Based on what we know right now, my top four for the college football playoff would be Alabama, Georgia, Penn State and TCU. No surprise, really, and there’s a chance it may not change if Penn State and TCU win out (still a big if). Here’s why: If Alabama and Georgia both finish 12-0 during the regular season, even the loser in the SEC title game looks like a playoff team. That’s especially so if it’s Georgia, since the Bulldogs would have the best loss of the one-loss teams and because they can keep an 11-1 Notre Dame at bay by virtue of a 20-19 victory in South Bend. But let’s see if Penn State gets by Ohio State this Saturday and if TCU can beat Oklahoma before declaring anything close to a done deal. Nittany Lions will have their hands full in Columbus, with the Buckeyes coming off a bye.

 

Tom Luicci was the national college football and basketball writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. from 1979-2014. The snarkiness is all Jersey.