Tom Luicci

Five questions

 

Q.  Did the college football season just go off the rails with four Top 10 teams losing on Saturday – or was it just a natural course correction?

 

We’re going with the latter. Georgia was going to have to be an Alabama-like super team to escape a three-game stretch of LSU, Florida and Kentucky unscathed. It isn’t and couldn’t. West Virginia hadn’t faced a road test all year and wasn’t getting through the second half of its schedule – including Texas and Oklahoma – unbeaten. Washington was already clinging to the periphery of the playoff picture before its loss to Oregon. And Penn State continues to be more talk than results under James Franklin, who seems to think games only last three quarters. So a lot of the clutter was cleared away, and here’s what we’re left with: Eight unbeaten teams, including Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame, which would make for a nice, neat playoff bracket.

 

Q. Which conference is more likely to get shut out of the playoffs – the Pac 12 or the Big 12?

Neither league has an unbeaten team left, but Oregon didn’t do the Pac-12 any favors when it comes to the playoff picture by beating No. 7-ranked Washington. A 12-1 Huskies team was probably the league’s best playoff hope. Why wouldn’t a 12-1 Oregon be viewed the same way? A non-conference schedule that consisted of 1-6 Bowling Green, FCS Portland State and 0-6 San Jose State, that’s why. West Virginia’s loss opens the way for fast-rising Texas or Oklahoma to jump back into the playoff picture if either runs the table. That seems much more likely than the Pac-12 producing a playoff team.

 

Q.  Before the Downtown Athletic Club declares the Heisman Trophy a formality for Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa can voters at least look at what Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins is doing?

The sophomore became the first Buckeyes’ QB to have two 400-yard passing games (that’s for a career, not a season) with his 33-of-44, 412-yard, three-touchdown performance against Minnesota. During Ohio State’s 7-0 start, Haskins has passed for 2,331 yards with 28 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. At the very least, the Heisman should be a two-player race.

Q. Most improbable rally to win from the weekend – Michigan State, Northwestern or Ole Miss?

Before we get to any of that can we put to rest the nonsense that Beaver Stadium is an intimidating place for opponents? It’s big. That’s all. Ask Michigan State, which became the second team this year to stage an improbable last-minute rally to beat Penn State at home. It sure seemed to be a curious decision by MSU coach Mark Dantonio to punt with 1:46 left and his team trailing 17-14 – though he did have all three timeouts left. Penn State proved to be an accomodating host by leaving Spartans QB Brian Lewerke just enough time to throw a game-winning 25-yard TD pass with 19 seconds left. But Northwestern’s comeback was even more improbable. The Wildcats trailed winless Nebraska 31-21 with 5:41 left and looked to be finished when they took over at their 1-yard line with 2:02 to play, no timeous and trailing 31-24. Ninety-nine yards later, in a drive for the ages by QB Clayton Thorson, the Wildcats forged a 31-31 tie and then won in OT on a FG. As for Ole Miss, the Rebels drove 97 yards in the final minutes to score the game-winning TD with 42 seconds left for a 37-33 road win.

Q.  Of the three winless teams left – Nebraska, UTEP and San Jose State – which is the most likely to finish without a victory?

It definitely won’t be Nebraska. Not only did the Cornhuskers shows signs of life against Northwestern last week, their cancelled opener against Akron was replaced by an Oct. 27 game against Bethune Cookman. They also have Illinois to play. So that school-record losing streak, now at 10 games, will end shortly. UTEP gave 6-1 North Texas all it could handle two weeks ago and still has 1-6 Rice and 1-5 Western Kentucky to play. That leaves San Jose State, a 52-3 loser at home to Army on Saturday, and a team with almost no prospects left to avoid going winless on the year.

 

On the rise

LSU (6-1)

After manhandling No. 2-ranked Georgia, Tigers are thinking big. Their next two games – Mississippi State and Alabama – are at home too.

Michigan (6-1)

Are the Wolverines officially back yet after that impressive victory over Wisconsin? Three games will definite their season: At Michigan State on Saturday, Penn State at home and at Ohio State to end the regular season.

USC (4-2)

Most knew Colorado’s 5-0 start was a byproduct of a weak schedule, but the victory over the Buffs was still another step forward for frosh QB J.T Daniels and a young Trojans team that has won three straight after losses to Stanford and Texas.

 On the decline

Oklahoma State (4-3)

Maybe the media should ban OSU players from talking to them after the Cowboys’ second straight loss, this one a one-sided thumping by a mediocre Kansas State team. Mike Gundy could be looking at another three losses, too.

Auburn (4-3)

Consecutive losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee have caused some audible grumbling on the Plains, with Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama still to come. This was supposed to be an SEC West contender. Instead, Tigers are a game out of last in the division.

California (3-3)

So much for the good will built up by that 3-0 start. Bear’s 37-7 loss to previously-winless UCLA puts their bowl hopes in jeopardy, though they should be revived briefly with a visit to Oregon State. But after that Cal might not win again.

 

Who’s hot

 

Clayton Thorson, QB, Northwestern

Engineered the game-tying 99-yard drive in the closing minutes in an eventual OT win against Nebraska to cap a career-high 455-yard passing day that included three TD tosses.

Brock Purdy, QB, Iowa State

Cyclones have found their QB of the present and the future after the frosh threw for 254 yards and three scores in a 30-14 upset of No. 6-ranked West Virginia.

Jordan Ta’amu, QB, Ole Miss

The senior flirted with Archie Manning’s school record for total offense by throwing for 387 yards, rushing for 141 and combining for three TDs. He also directed the 97-yard game-winning drive in the final minutes of a 37-33 victory at Arkansas.

 

Who’s not

Rutgers QBs

In another lopsided loss, this one to Maryland, Art Sitkowski and Gio Rescigno combined to go 2-of-17 for eight yards with five interceptions. Imagine how bad it would have been had the school not hired the highest-paid offensive coordinator in program history this year.

Alex Hornibrook, QB, Wisconsin

He’s a senior with experience, so more is expected of him. But he came up small in the loss at Michigan, going 7-of-20 for 100 yards with two interceptions.

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn

Talk about a player regressing dramatically. Stidham was intercepted twice and lost a fumble that resulted in a TD in a 30-24 loss to Tennessee. For all intents and purposes, the Tigers’ season is over.

Playing it forward

The top games of the coming week

 

Michigan at Michigan State, noon, FOX

A big rivalry game that grew a little more in stature with Michigan State’s upset victory at Penn State last Saturday. Wolverines, 6-1 overall, come in off a sharp performance against Wisconsin and are tied with Ohio State atop the Big Ten’s East Division. Spartans (4-2) only have one league loss.

N.C. State at Clemson, 3:30, ESPN

Time to find out if the 5-0 Wolfpack is for real – and if Clemson will be out of challenges to its claim for ACC supremacy and a playoff sport after Saturday. The only mild threat to the Tigers after this is a home game against Duke.

Mississippi State at LSU, 7, ESPN

Bulldogs are both dangerous and physical and catch LSU after an emotional upset of No. 2-ranked Georgia. If the Tigers want to set up a showdown for the SEC West title with Alabama in two weeks they have to take care of business here first.

Story Lines

1. It’s going to be interesting to see how the playoff committee evaluates UCF when the first playoff rankings come out. Knights are 6-0 but struggled to hang on Saturday for a 31-30 victory over Memphis – arguably the best team UCF has faced this year. The early schedule was weak at best and the closing slate features underrated Temple and unbeatens Cincinnati and USF. Will the game cancelled with N.C. State due to the hurricane have a major impact on how UCF is view in the committee’s eyes? Is there really enough meat on the overall schedule – credit to youthful Cincinnati but that’s as soft as 6-0 gets — to force the committee to seriously consider an unbeaten UCF?

2. Watch enough games every week and you’re likely to see something you never have before. That was the case on Saturday for winless (and likely finishing that way) San Jose State during its 52-3 home loss to Army. Remarkably, and unfathomably, the Spartans lost fumbles on four – four! — consecutive possessions. The first lost fumble came on the first play of the series. The second occurred on the first play of the next series. The third didn’t happen until the third play of the series and the fourth on the fifth play of the series. Bottom line: San Jose State ran 10 plays on those four possessions and lost four fumbles. That’s hard to do even if you’re trying to do it.

 

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