Five questions

Aren’t we pretty much down to nine teams vying for the four College Football Playoff spots now?

Amazing the way the field has narrowed so dramatically — and convincingly — in the past couple of weeks. But here’s the deal: The four playoff teams will almost certainly come from the group of Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Clemson, TCU, Wisconsin (ugh), Miami and/or Washington. It’s tough to see any other outside breaking into the final four. And if your school is No. 8 or No. 9 when the next College Football Playoff rankings come out, keep this in mind: Georgia and Alabama will likely wind up playing in the SEC title game (though it may not matter if the Bulldogs beat Auburn on Saturday, since the Tide and Georgia are both likely to get in then); Notre Dame plays at unbeaten Miami on Saturday and Oklahoma and TCU also play on Saturday. And Washington looks as if it will have to get past USC in the Pac-12 title game to force its way into playoff consideration again. So there’s a lot more weeding out left.

Unbeaten Wisconsin, meanwhile, continues to play no one of note. Iowa on Saturday? Sure, the game with the dangerous 6-3 Hawkeyes is a big one. But even a Big Ten title game appearance by the Badgers means facing a team with at least two losses.

 

What has happened to the quality of play in the Big Ten?

Parity? Sure, if that’s your spin now. But the Big Ten is supposed to be about producing national title contenders, not parity. With the possible exception of Wisconsin, which remains suspect despite being 9-0, the league is filled with a bunch of overrated wannabes. The best non-conference wins for the top tier Big Ten teams raises even more questions about the overall quality of the league. For Ohio State it’s Army; for Wisconsin it’s FAU; for Penn State it’s Pittsburgh; for Michigan it’s a Florida team in free-fall, and for Michigan State it’s Bowling Green. Wisconsin may yet salvage the league’s battered reputation, but the Badgers will do so against a schedule that ESPN would need to buy out an entire pastry shop for.

 

Is the Heisman Trophy Baker Mayfield’s to lose?

He’s the clear frontrunner after throwing for a school-record 598 yards and five touchdowns (rushing for another) in Oklahoma’s 62-52 victory at Oklahoma State. A solid showing against TCU on Saturday seems as if it would just about wrap up the award for the senior. That would not be a surprise, since he entered the year as a leading contender for the honor, but it’s amazing to watch as so many others – Sam Darnold, Saquon Barkley, J.T. Barrett, even Josh Adams after he missed the entire second half of Notre Dame’s game last Saturday – have seen their fortunes rise and fall.

Maybe Stanford’s Bryce Love can recover from his season-low 69-yard rushing effort in a loss to Washington State to continue to challenge Mayfield, but the Sooners’ star is the favorite when it matters most.

 

So just how good is this Miami team?

After failing to dazzle people with too many close calls (winning the four games prior to Saturday by a total of 18 points), the Hurricanes looked like a potential playoff contender with their 28-10 victory over a solid Virginia Tech team, overcoming three interceptions by quarterback Mark Rosier. But we’ll know a lot more about Miami on Saturday when Notre Dame visits and then likely in the ACC title game, where it appears Clemson will be waiting. Remember, too, the Hurricanes will play only 11 regular-season games this year due to the cancellation of the Sept. 9 Arkansas State game.

 

Can anyone explain how Iowa put up 55 points against Ohio State’s supposedly-vaunted defense?

In their previous two games, the plodding Hawkeyes scored 10 points against Northwestern and 17 against Minnesota. Then soph QB Nate Stanley went wild against a defense that was touted as being one of the better ones in the country, despite yielding 38 points to Penn State (though not all of that was the defense’s fault) while shutting down Saquon Barkley. With Michigan State and Michigan left, the Buckeyes are looking at a season that began with national title hopes ending up with possibly three losses (or more). Is it the worst coaching job in Urban Meyer’s illustrious 16-year career, including Bowling Green, Utah and Florida? It might well be, though his 8-5 Florida team in 2010, his last year with the Gators, is a contender for that distinction.

 

On the rise

Boise State (7-2)

A 2-2 start – with the losses to Washington State and Virginia – has been erased thanks to a five-game winning streak that has the Broncos as the favorite to win the Mountain West.

Army (7-2)

Black Knights’ 21-0 victory at Air Force means they can win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy outright for the first time since 1996 by beating Navy.

Toledo (8-1)

Rockets have quietly put together a superb season, with the only loss at Miami on Sept. 23. They’ve won five straight since and are 5-0 in MAC play.

 

On the decline

Penn State (7-2)

From contenders to pretenders, all in the span of two games. Amazing how James Franklin has turned Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley into pedestrian players.

Nebraska (4-5)

Think Mike Riley has his bags packed? Cornhuskers’ 31-24 OT loss at home to Northwestern was their third in four games. They’ve beaten no one of note and still have Iowa and Penn State left.

New Mexico (3-6)

What team commits 11 turnovers in two games? These Lobos, who have dropped four straight and may not win again this year.

 

Who’s hot

Nate Stanley, QB, Iowa

Soph passed for 226 yards and five touchdowns as the Hawkeyes shredded a defense that Ohio State D-coordinator Greg Schiano said has the best d-line he has ever coached.

Ahmad Bradshaw, QB, Army

A career-high 265 rushing yards – the most ever by an Army QB – keyed the 21-0 victory at Air Force that has the Black Knights thinking Commander-in-Chief Trophy.

Kyle Queiro, S, Northwestern

Quite a day for the Jersey kid: Two interceptions, a pass break up to end the game, three PBUs overall and six tackles in the Wildcats’ 31-24 OT victory at Nebraska.

 

Who’s not

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State

Solid overall numbers at Michigan State except for this: three interceptions. End result: Michigan State 27, Penn State 24.

Khalil Tate, QB, Arzizona

We love the kid – he has a chance at the Heisman the next couple of years – but he can’t disappear in the first half, throw two fourth-quarter interceptions and get sacked five times, as was the case in a 49-35 loss to USC.

Cole Murphy, PK, Syracuse

His 43-yard try as time expired sailed wide right, enabling Florida State to escape with a 27-24 victory – while changing the narrative of the Orange’s season.

 

Playing it forward

The top three games of the coming week

Notre Dame (8-1) at Miami (8-0)

A de facto playoff game, since the winner will emerge as a major playoff contender and the loser will be done with those hopes. It’s the Irish’s first visit to Miami since 1989.

Auburn (7-2) at Georgia (9-0)

Bulldogs have already clinched the SEC East, but they can’t afford a loss here – and potentially another one in the SEC title game – if they want to make the playoffs. Auburn is looking to keep its SEC West title hopes alive.

(8-1) TCU at Oklahoma (8-1)

Tied atop the Big 12 standings, the winner is virtually assured of making the league title game – but the loser still might as well. The last major test for both during the regular season, though OU still has West Virginia.

 

Story Lines

1. Not a bad week for the Pettis family. First patriarch Gary Pettis earns a World Series ring as the third-base coach for the Houston Astros, then son Dante Pettis – Washington’s star wide receiver – sets an NCAA record with his ninth career punt return for a touchdown. The younger Pettis returned a punt 64 yards for a score in a 38-3 rout of Oregon, the fourth time this year he has scored that way. Yet Pac-12 coaches insist on kicking to him. Go figure.

2. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said star RB Josh Adams sat the second half of Saturday’s game against Wake Forest due to weariness, citing the combination of exams and football taking a toll on Adams. He was held to 22 rushing yards on just five carries, but the Irish showed why they have legitimate title game hopes by turning to QB Brandon Wimbush to take over as the offensive catalyst. Wimbush did by passing for a career-high 280 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 110 yards and two scores in a 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. Notre Dame amassed 710 yards of offense in the game despite Adams’ absence.

3. A few noteworthy tidbits from the weekend. Northwestern became the first team in FBS history to win three straight OT games by defeating Nebraska, 31-24. Previously, the Wildcats beat Iowa (17-10) and Michigan State (39-31) in OT. … Army ended Air Force’s scoring streak at 306 games in a 21-0 victory. The Falcons had not been shut out since 1992. … One-time Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley has been held to a combined 107 yards on 35 carries in Penn State’s past two games. … USF QB Quinton Flowers set a school record with 516 total yards (385 passing, 131 rushing) in a 37-20 victory at UConn. … Washington State’s Luke Falk became the Pac-12’s career passing leader, surpassing Oregon State’s Sean Mannion and his 13,600 yards, in the Cougars’ 24-21 victory over Stanford. Falk passed for 337 yards and three TDs. … San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny, after being slowed by injuries, returned in a big way, rushing for 234 yards and two TDs in a 52-7 victory over San Jose State. The Aztecs rushed for a school-record 554 yards and had six rushing TDs for the first time since 1992.

 

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.