Five questions

Will we finally get a handle on just how good Alabama is when the Crimson Tide visits Auburn on Saturday?

Check out Alabama’s resume and you see a couple of nice wins, but nothing that would stamp this team as head and shoulders above the rest of college football, despite what the polls say. The Florida State victory has been diminished because the Seminoles are so desperate now that they’re frantically re-scheduling games against patsies just to get to .500. Fresno and LSU – both at home – were solid wins. Beating Mississippi State counts as a quality victory, though Nick Saban’s bunch was in a dog fight in that 31-24 win, just as it was in a 27-19 victory at Texas A&M. Auburn, 9-2 and winners of four straight (including a laugher over then-No. 1 Georgia), represents far and away Alabama’s biggest test of the season. And it’s at Auburn. If Alabama survives this one, the Tide can get started on the national championship ring fittings. They won’t fall short if they don’t lose here.

Do the nation’s two most overpaid coaches both call the Big Ten home?

Year three of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan looks as if it will finish 8-4 for the regular season when the Wolverines lose to Ohio State on Saturday. He’s the nation’s third-highest paid coach at $7 million a year, and despite being 28-9 overall, Michigan isn’t getting their money’s worth with an offense that borders on prehistoric. Harbaugh also hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record in 414 days and he’s 1-4 against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. Remember former Ohio State coach John Cooper? He was 111-43-4 (that’s 71.5 percent) as the Buckeyes’ coach from 1988 to 2000, but was fired largely because of a 2-10-1 record against Michigan. Harbaugh makes a lot of noise during the offseason with his shenanigans, but very little when the games are played.

Then there’s Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes fell to 6-5 after losing 24-15 at home to Purdue. That makes five losses or more in seven of the past eight seasons for Ferentz (he is 60-42 over that span) and for that he is the country’s 13th-highest paid coach at $4.5 million a year. No school gets less bang for its coaching buck than Iowa.

Why isn’t San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny higher on Heisman Trophy watch lists?

It’s partly because he plays for San Diego State and partly because most Heisman voters can’t think outside the Power 5 conference box. But when you start breaking records held by Marshall Faulk, people need to take notice.

Penny, the nation’s leading rusher with 1,824 yards (a 7.2-yard average per carry with 17 TDs), accounted for a school-record 422 all-purpose yards as the Aztecs improved to 9-2 with a 42-23 victory over Nevada. He rushed for 222 yards and two scores, returned his first-ever punt 70 yards for a touchdown and scored on a 100-yard kickoff return. His rushing total puts him well within reach of a 2,000-yard regular season when San Diego State closes against New Mexico. So how about starting to pay attention folks?

What are we to make of the latest antics by Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield as it relates to his Heisman candidacy?

He’s the leader on most Heisman watch lists, but his crotch-grabbing, expletive-filled rant on Saturday – caught in living color on TV against Kansas (against Kansas? Really?) — will no doubt turn some voters off. Mayfield has already apologized, but then that’s what he does best besides producing passing yards at a dizzying pace. He has also apologized for planting the Oklahoma flag at midfield after the Sooners won at Ohio State this season and has apologized after accepting a plea deal following his arrest for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and fleeing in February. The latter two charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. Remember, Mayfield is a fifth-year senior – an adult. He’s not some wide-eyed 18-year-old. If Heisman voters are turned off by his immature and childish antics, so be it. The bigger question is how NFL teams will view his continuing adolescent behavior.

Is it time to start giving unbeaten Wisconsin more respect?

Grudgingly, the answer is yes. But he’s the hangup: The Badgers’ four best wins – FAU, Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan – were all at home. Their first true test against a quality opponent will come against Ohio State at a neutral site in the Big Ten championship game. But when you reach this stage of the season as one of only four unbeaten teams remaining you deserve props. And when you feature the nation’s best young running back in freshman Jonathan Taylor there is always a chance the offense can have success, even if the quarterback play is mediocre. The Badgers close the regular season Saturday at Minnesota, a 39-0 loser last week to Northwestern.

 

On the rise

Missouri (6-5)

After a 1-5 start, the Tigers have won five straight, becoming just the second team in FBS history (Ole Miss in 1983 was the other) to become bowl eligible after opening 1-5. They’re also the first team in 41 years to have both a five-game losing streak and five-game winning streak in the same season.

FAU (8-3)

Lane Kiffin’s Owls earned a spot in the Conference-USA title game opposite North Texas with a 52-24 victory over FIU. They’ve overcome a 1-3 start by going 7-0 in league play.

Northwestern (8-3)

Wildcats have erased a 2-3 beginning by winning six straight and should turn that into seven in a row in the season finale against Illinois. If that happens it would mark Northwestern’s longest winning streak since coach Pat Fitzgerald was a senior for the Wildcats in 1996.

 

On the decline

Cincinnati (3-8)

Saturday’s 48-20 loss to 3-8 East Carolina was the Bearcats’ seventh in the past eight games, with questions now swirling about Luke Fickell’s coaching after just one season.

Texas Tech (5-6)

This looks like it could be the end for coach Kliff Kingsbury, who started his Tech career 7-0 but has gone just 22-32 since then. Saturday’s 27-3 loss to TCU was the Red Raiders’ fifth defeat in six games after a promising 4-1 start.

BYU (3-9)

A disastrous season for the Cougars reached record levels with a 16-10 loss to UMass, making this BYU team just the third in school history to lose nine games. A loss at Hawaii in the season finale would make this the program’s first 10-loss season.

 

Who’s hot

Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

Think the Ducks missed their starting QB during his five-game absence due to an injury? He passed for 235 yards and a score and rushed for 40 yards and a TD as Oregon dispatched Arizona, 48-38. The Ducks were 1-4 in Herbert’s absence.

Byron Pringle, WR, Kansas State

Besides catching TD passes of 47, 46 and 60 yards, he returned a kickoff 89 yards for a score in the Wildcats’ 45-40 upset at Oklahoma State.

Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State

The junior passed for 153 yards, rushed for 101 and accounted for all four touchdowns as the Bulldogs rallied to beat Arkansas 28-21. Fitzgerald’s six-yard TD pass to Deddrick Thomas with 17 seconds left was the game winner.

 

Who’s not

Marquez Calloway, WR, Tennessee

In a disastrous season for the Vols, Calloway made it a little worse, losing two fumbles in the red zone that LSU turned into 10 points in a 30-10 victory. A driving rainstorm no doubt contributed to Calloway’s errors.

Chayce Crouch, QB, Illinois

Sure, Ohio State is good. And yes, the Illini are really, really bad. But how is this for a quarterback stat line: 4-of-14 passing for 16 yards, eight carries for minus five yards rushing.

Michigan running backs

We know this is a solid Wisconsin defense. But 58 rushing yards on 37 carries? Pitiful. Here’s the thing: nine different players had a crack at carrying the ball for the Wolverines too.

 

Playing it forward

The top three games of the coming week

 

Alabama (11-0) at Auburn (9-2)

Arguably the biggest game of the year so far, with the winner capturing the SEC West and emerging as a top playoff contender. Alabama has been solid all year. Auburn is just getting good – real good – now. It’s a 3:30 start on CBS.

Washington State (9-2) at Washington (9-2)

The Apple Cup carries big stakes for Wazzu: A victory gives the Cougars the Pac-12 North title and a spot in the league title game. A Washington victory enables Stanford to win the division.

South Florida (9-1) at UCF (10-0), Friday

This one will decide the AAC East Division title – and whether a non-power 5 school lands a major bowl game. Two superb quarterbacks (USF’s Quinton Flowers and UCF’s McKenzie Milton) square off in what may be the biggest home game in UCF history. It’s on ABC at 3:30 on Friday.

 

Story Lines

1. Passionate college football fans will go to almost any lengths to make their feelings known. Evidence of that was there for all to see during UCF 45-19 victory at Temple. The Knights are 10-0 now under coach Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback whose name keeps getting to connected to his alma mater, which is 4-7 and reeling. A group of Nebraska fans positioned themselves near the tunnel that UCF took to the field, holding a sign that read: “Scott Come Back Home.” A group of Tennessee fans at the same game tried the same approach to solve their coaching vacancy with signs that read “We Found Our Coach” and “There’s Frost in Our Future.”

2. There’s weird scheduling and then there’s bad luck that results in bizarre scheduling. The latter is the case in the Mountain West, with Boise State closing out the regular season at Fresno State on Saturday. They’ve already clinched their respective divisions, meaning this game is meaningless – even more so since they will meet again a week later in the Mountain West championship game. It will be interesting to see how much each coach “shows” on Saturday, knowing they will meet again on Dec. 2 with a league title at stake. Do they rest starters? Do they only use the first few pages of the playbook? It’s not often the same teams meet in consecutive weeks, especially when one game means nothing and the other everything.

3. Two senior stars the college game will miss desperately reminded us again on Saturday why they need to be appreciated. Northwestern running back Justin Jackson reached the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fourth straight season, becoming just the ninth FBS player to accomplish that feat and only the second in Big Ten history (Ron Dayne). Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who already owns 35 school or conference records, threw his 100th career touchdown pass and passed Braxton Miller as the all-time rushing quarterback in Buckeyes history (with 3,070 yards) in a rout of Illinois.

Then there’s reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, a junior, who accounted for 381 yards (270 passing, 111 rushing) and four touchdowns in a rout of Syracuse. Jackson, who may be NFL-bound after this year (what more does he have to prove, really), has rushed for 1,287 yards and 17 TDs and has passed for 3,273 yards and 23 TDs heading into the regular-season finale.

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.