Five questions

What can we expect from the college football playoff rankings this week after seeing teams ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 6 lose?

A lot more debate for starters. For instance: Isn’t 9-0 Miami – No. 7 in the rankings last week – clearly a top four team after its emphatic beatdown of No. 3 Notre Dame? Where does 10-0 Wisconsin fit in after finally beating a ranked team – albeit now 6-4 Iowa (and at home)? How will the rankings sort out the five deserving teams – Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Miami and Wisconsin – for the top four spots? One man’s opinion of what the top 5 should look like (but won’t necessarily) this week: 1-Alabama, 2-Oklahoma, 3-Miami, 4-Clemson, 5-Wisconsin.

 

After emerging as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner a little over a month ago, is it possible that Penn State’s Saquon Barkley isn’t even a first-team all-Big Ten running back now?

No one is denying Barkley’s breathtaking talent. But can you essentially fail to show up for one-third of your team’s conference games – two of them losses – and still be considered one of the Big Ten’s top two running backs? Barkley has 142 yards and 49 carries combined the past three games (Ohio State, Michigan State and Rutgers) and 899 for the season, with a 5.4 yards per carry average. There are 26 players at the FBS level who have topped 1,000 yards, two in the Big Ten – Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor (1,525 yards and a 7.0-yard average) and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins (1,038 yards and a 7.6-yard average). Barkley has had three – just three – 100-yard rushing games all season. Special talent, yes. Special season? Not so much anymore.

 

Has Auburn clearly established itself as the best playoff contender among the current two-loss teams?

Saturday’s 40-17 rout of previously No. 1 Georgia re-established the Tigers as a legitimate threat to crash the playoff party – partly because of their credentials but also because of the opportunity ahead of them. Since a 27-23 loss at LSU (the other loss was 14-6 at Clemson) Auburn has ripped off three straight dominant victories. If the Tigers beat Alabama, another potential No. 1 team, and then Georgia again in the SEC championship game, they will make a strong case for inclusion. The other two-loss teams with outside playoff hopes still flickering are Ohio State and USC, but only if each runs the table and emerges as a conference champion.

 

How about Army’s Jeff Monken as the National Coach of the Year?

The final two regular-season games – North Texas and Navy — will really shape the narrative of Army’s season, but at 8-2, and with the Black Knights capping a 6-0 home record by beating Duke on Saturday, the job Monken has done to this point is nothing short of remarkable. Before he took over in 2014, Army had losing records in 16 of the previous 17 seasons. There was a stretch from 1998 to 2008 when the school’s combined record was 26-101. Monken guided Army to an 8-5 season and a bowl game a year ago and now has a chance to equal the school record of 10 victories, set in 1996. He might even surpass it if the Black Knights can win their final two and then a bowl game.

 

Has the Big 12 potentially hurt itself by having a championship game this season?

It’s clear that Oklahoma is the league’s best team, having dispatched Oklahoma State and TCU with only hapless Kansas and West Virginia left. So the Sooners should finish 11-1. Their credentials to that point would already be playoff worthy, yet they might have to play TCU again in the Big 12 title game, just weeks after Saturday’s impressive 38-20 victory over the Horned Frogs. TCU holds the tiebreaker advantage in the race for second, with Texas Tech and Baylor left. So how does playing TCU a second time benefit the Sooners? It doesn’t. All it can do is cost the Big 12 a potential playoff spot. Having only one division and 10 teams – which means everyone plays everyone else – should be enough for the league. Maybe it won’t wind up costing the Big 12 because Oklahoma is that good. But it could. And it’s an unnecessary chance to take.

 

On the rise

Washington State (9-2)

Coogs have rebounded from their loss to Arizona by beating Stanford and Utah, and now only need to defeat Washington to win the Pac-12 North and earn a spot in the league championship game.

Missouri (5-5)

A soft recent schedule (Idaho, UConn, Florida and Tennessee) has certainly helped as the Tigers have won four straight to draw even at 5-5 after a 1-5 start, with Vanderbilt and Arkansas remaining. One win there makes Missouri bowl eligible.

Northwestern (7-3)

Wildcats have erased a 2-3 start with five straight victories, improving to 5-2 in Big Ten play. With Minnesota and Illinois left, there’s at least one more win on the schedule too – and possibly two.

 

On the decline

Virginia Tech (7-3)

The promise of a special season has faded with consecutive losses to Miami and Georgia Tech, though the Hokies still can have a nine-win campaign with Pittsburgh and Virginia left.

Syracuse (4-6)

Orange looked to be bowl-bound after shocking Clemson to improve to 4-3. They’ve lost three straight since and may get eliminated from bowl consideration against Louisville on Saturday.

Nebraska (4-6)

Saturday’s 54-21 loss to Minnesota has the Cornhuskers on the brink of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2007. With Penn State and Iowa left, they could have their first four-win season since 1960, too.

 

Who’s hot

Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma

Accounted for four TDs (two rushing, two receiving) while rushing for 151 yards and having 139 receiving as the Sooners handled TCU with ease.

Anthony Ratliff-Williams, WR, North Carolina

In a forgettable year for the Tar Heels, the sophomore turned in a memorable game to help upset Pitt: He returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a TD, threw a 35-yard TD pass and caught the eventual game-winning touchdown pass.

Dameon Baber, CB, Nevada

It doesn’t matter that the opponent was hapless San Jose State. Baber became the third player in FCS history to record three touchdowns on runbacks in a game, doing so on a blocked punt, a 100-yard interception return and a 39-yard pick six.

 

Who’s not

Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame

In what was essentially a playoff elimination game against Miami, he started 2-for-10 with two interceptions, later committing a third turnover on a lost fumble. A bad time to throw in a clunker.

Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Nebraska

As bad as he was as a head coach at UConn (11-26), he’s even worse as the DC for the Cornhuskers, with Minnesota rushing for 409 yards in a 54-21 romp on Saturday. Diaco’s defense is ranked No. 83 overall nationally.

Nate Stanley QB, Iowa

How do you go for 226 passing yards and five TDs in a dazzling performance to upset Ohio State to 8-of-24 for 41 yards with four sacks and a lost fumble in an offensively-inept loss to Wisconsin in the span of a week?

 

Playing it forward

The top three games of the coming week

 

Michigan (8-2) at Wisconsin (10-0)

The biggest test yet for the Badgers, who need a couple of quality wins to boost their playoff credentials despite being unbeaten. Wolverines’ offense looks much better since Brandon Peters took over at quarterback.

UCLA (5-5) at USC (9-2)

For the old-timers (like me) the Josh Rosen-Sam Darnold matchup is a modern West Coast version of John Hadl vs. Daryle Lamonica. Could be a wild shootout with two quality QBs. Trojans will look to do what they can to boost their playoff credentials

Kentucky (7-3) at Georgia (9-1)

Bulldogs need a quick bounce-back victory after being thrashed by Auburn, and while the Wildcats have yet to prove they can handle this quality they can be a dangerous team because of sophomore running back Benny Snell, the SEC’s leading rusher.

 

Story Lines

1. It’s probably because he plays for Alabama and we expect great things from Alabama players, but we really should stop taking Crimson Tide sophomore QB Jalen Hurts for granted. He’s a major reason why Alabama is so good, reminding us again in Saturday’s 31-24 victory at Mississippi State. With the game tied at 24-24 and facing a third and 15 in the final minute, Hurts delivered a strike for a 31-yard completion to Calvin Ridley. That set up his 26-yard game-winning touchdown pass to DeVonte Smith with 25 seconds left. He doesn’t produce the weekly stats that, say, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson does, but Hurts sure does know how to win.

2. We’ll need an explanation for what Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning’s thinking was in the final 32 seconds of the Cyclones’ 49-42 loss to Oklahoma State. Set up with an easy chance to force a tie at the Cowboys’ 3-yard line, Manning called two straight fades – from backup quarterback (and redshirt freshman) Zeb Noland. The first was incomplete. The second was intercepted to end the game. There were so many more options open to Manning that throwing two low percentage fades seemed to be questionable at best.

3. For all of the progress Dino Babers seemed to be making at Syracuse this year (the upset of Clemson, the competitive losses to LSU, N.C. State and Miami), the Orange took a huge step backward with Saturday’s 64-43 loss to Wake Forest. Syracuse led 38-24 at halftime and 41-27 with nine minutes left in the third quarter, eventually being outscored 40-5 in the second half as Wake QB John Wolford accounted for six touchdowns while directing an offense that rolled up 734 yards. It was the most points scored by an opponent in the 37-year history of the Carrier Dome and put a once-promising 4-3 season (after the upset of Clemson) on the brink of being another failure with Louisville and Boston College left. By the way, all Louisville QB Lamar Jackson did in a 62-28 victory over the Orange last year was combine for 610 yards of offense and five touchdowns.

 

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.