Five questions from “Professor” Tom Luicci
Q. What will the first playoff rankings – set to be released on Tuesday – look like?
For now, there doesn’t appear to be much mystery. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and LSU look as if they will comprise the Top 4 (though not necessarily in that order), with Michigan, Georgia and Oklahoma waiting to make a move following the outcome of Saturday’s Alabama-LSU game. The next tier will likely consist of Ohio State, West Virginia, UCF, Kentucky and Washington State (again, not necessarily in that order).
There could be plenty of movement after Saturday, however. Besides Alabama-LSU, the results of Georgia-Kentucky, Penn State-Michigan, Notre Dame-Northwestern and West Virginia-Texas could cause a shakeup in the following week’s playoff rankings.
Q. How did the three teams – Oregon State, Kansas and Rutgers – vying for the ignominious distinction as Power 5’s worst program manage not to suffer a loss last Saturday?
If you had Oregon State and Kansas in a straight win parlay, play the Power Ball immediately. The Beavers beat Colorado in OT to end their five-game losing streak when it looked like an 0-for-the Pac-12 finish was looming, Kansas picked up its first Big 12 win by beating reeling TCU and Rutgers, 1-7, had an off week. Since Kansas routed Rutgers and Oregon State now has a conference victory, it looks like the Scarlet Knights have a clear path to claiming the title as the nation’s worst Power 5 team – especially with a closing slate of Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State enabling them to solidify their case.
Q. Biggest disappointment (dare we say fraud?) this season: N.C. State, Miami, Wisconsin, Texas, Washington, Stanford, TCU, Oregon, USC or Colorado?
All have been in the Top 25 at some point this season and all are coming off bad losses on Saturday. So let’s review. N.C. State has been roughed up two straight games after starting 5-0 against a weak schedule and reaching No. 22 in the Top 25. Miami, ranked No. 8 to start the season, is 5-3, has lost two straight and is almost out of the ACC Coastal race. Wisconsin has lost two of three and is 5-3 overall since rising to No. 5 in the polls early in the year. Texas, ranked No. 6 entering the weekend, squandered its playoff hopes with a loss at Oklahoma State and already has a bad loss at Maryland. Washington started the year ranked No. 6 and has now lost two of three to fall to 6-3 after losing to Cal. Stanford has lost three of four since rising to No. 7 in the polls and is now 5-3. TCU lost to lowly Kansas to drop to 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big 12 after starting the season ranked No. 16. Oregon, with the curious hire of Mario Cristobal as head coach and supposedly with the No. 1 QB in the next NFL Draft, has lost three of five after rising to No. 20 in the polls. USC, which started the year ranked No. 20, is 4-4 after losing to Arizona State and will have to scratch to reach bowl eligibility over its final four games. And Colorado, which opened 5-0 thanks to as soft as schedule as it could play, has lost three straight since rising to No. 20 in the polls.
Q. Few people seem to question the quality of Alabama and Clemson to this point. But just how good is Notre Dame?
It’s a fair question after the Irish yawned their way to another victory against a mediocre opponent with their 44-22 victory over Navy. Here’s the rub: The combined record of Notre Dame’s eight opponents to this point is just 33-32. There’s one quality victory – over 7-1 Michigan. But the seven opponents since that opening game win over the Wolverines are a combined 26-31. And the Irish don’t have to play a conference championship game, which has its pluses and minuses. So is Notre Dame vulnerable to being jumped by a one-loss team with a better quality strength of schedule, a conference championship and just as many wins? Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC comprise the Irish’s remaining schedule. Impressive victories over Northwestern and Syracuse would solidify their playoff credentials. Florida State and USC just add to the mediocrity of the overall schedule.
Q. Alabama at LSU will dominate the attention on Saturday, but what about the other key games and their impact?
It starts with Georgia at Kentucky, which will decide the SEC East. Both are 7-1 and it’s hard to remember the last time there was a football game this significant in Lexington. West Virginia plays at Texas in a game that will help sort out the logjam atop the Big 12, with Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia all 4-1 in conference play (Oklahoma plays at West Virginia on Nov. 23). Penn State, which has been less than impressive the past four games, will look to derail Michigan’s Big Ten title hopes in the Big House, with the Wolverines coming off a bye week. Michigan is the Big Ten’s only unbeaten team in conference play at 5-0, with a win Saturday all but assuring a showdown with Ohio State on Nov. 24 for the East Division title. Notre Dame at Northwestern is intriguing because the Wildcats have found their footing after a 1-3 start, winning four straight to lead the Big Ten West Division. But it’s also a team coming off four straight close – and emotional – victories.
On the rise
San Jose State (1-7)
Any time a team can leave the winless ranks this late in the season – as the Spartans did by beating UNLV – kudos are in order. Now UTEP is the nation’s only winless FBS team.
Cavs have wrested control of the ACC’s Coastal Division with a three-game winning streak and seem to have found a difference-maker in QB Bryce Perkins. Pitt, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are all that stand in the way of an ACC title date with Clemson.
Washington State (7-1)
Cougars have won four straight since a three-point loss to USC to lead the Pac-12 North race and now close with three of their final four at home. Beating Stanford on the road last Saturday was a significant step forward for Mike Leach’s crew.
On the decline
Remarkable the way Bobby Petrino has ruined this program in such a short period of time. Saturday’s 56-35 loss to Wake Forest – Wake Forest! – was the Cardinals’ fifth straight and dropped them to 0-5 in ACC play.
Tough to see the Horned Frogs reaching bowl eligibility after their loss to lowly Kansas – TCU’s fifth defeat in six games. Gary Patterson appears headed to his second losing season in three years, something that never happened when the school was in the Mountain West.
State of Florida College Football
Florida gets crushed. Florida State gets pummeled. Miami loses again, falling to 5-6 since last year’s 10-0 start. USF is no longer undefeated after getting blown out by Houston. Even FAU lost. The saving grace: FIU won and UCF had an off week.
Javon Leake, RB, Maryland
The sophomore entered Saturday’s game against Illinois with five carries all year. He finished with 140 yards rushing and three TDs on five carries and had a 97-yard kickoff return for a score.
D’Eriq King, QB, Houston
Carved up previously-unbeaten USF by throwing for 419 yards and five TDs and rushing for 134 yards and two scores in a 57-36 victory for the 7-1 Cougars.
Matt Coburn, RB, Wake Forest
The senior was all set to go to Louisville four years ago until Bobby Petrino rescinded his scholarship offer. But karma wins again: He rushed for a career-high 243 yards and three TDs in the Demon Deacons’ 56-35 victory over Petrino’s (House of) Cards.
Alan Bowman, QB, Texas Tech
Live with a freshman QB, die with one. As promising as Bowman is, he cost the Red Raiders any chance at the Big 12 title with three interceptions and then mishandling a snap for a safety in what was a 31-31 game in Tech’s 40-31 loss to Iowa State.
Nate Stanley, QB, Iowa
Is there a more erratic and limited QB for a supposedly good team? Stanley was 18-of-49 with two interceptions in the 30-24 loss at Penn State, with his interception at the 3-yard line with 3:30 left preventing the Hawkeyes from earning a season-defining victory.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
The nation’s leading rusher entering the Northwestern game managed 46 yards on 11 carries and continued to be careless with the football. His two fumbles resulted in 10 points in the Wildcats’ 31-17 victory.
Playing it forward
The top games of the coming week
Georgia at Kentucky, 3:30, CBS
Not only does this decide the SEC East title, it determines who gets to play the Alabama-LSU winner for a playoff berth in the SEC championship game. Both are 7-1 overall and 5-1 in league play and both come off solid victories.
West Virginia at Texas, 3:30, FOX
This will help loosen up the three-way logjam atop the Big 12, with Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas all 4-1 in conference play. Mountaineers need to prove they can win a major road test. Longhorns need to rebound after a loss at Oklahoma State that cost them any short at a playoff berth.
Penn State at Michigan, 3:45, ESPN
One of two remaining games that will determine the Big Ten East Division winner (Michigan at Ohio State being the other) and possible playoff contender. Wolverines, 7-1 overall and 5-0 in league play, come off a bye. Penn State, 6-2, comes off a second straight hard-fought victory. Trace McSorley faces a huge challenge against this Wolverines defense.
Notre Dame at Northwestern, 7:15, ESPN
The 8-0 Irish don’t have too many land mines left on the way to 12-0 – and who knows if this will be one? Wildcats sit atop the Big Ten West at 5-1 and have won four straight, but a loss here could mean they can still win their division with four losses overall. Bizarre.
Alabama at LSU, 8, CBS
This is the focus of all of college football on Saturday, with LSU representing the last real threat to Alabama winning the SEC West and reaching the league title game. Tigers are a handful defensively but are limited offensively. It will be interesting to see how the Tide’s explosive offense fares in its first real test.
1. It never gets old watching games decided on the final play – and not by a kicker. Saturday offered two of those. Cincinnati improved to 7-1 when sophomore safety James Wiggins returned an interception 86 yards for a touchdown in overtime for a 26-20 victory over SMU. Kentucky ensured its showdown with Georgia this Saturday would be for the SEC East title when Terry Wilson tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Conrad on an untimed play for a 15-14 victory over Missouri. The Wildcats, 7-1, were given the chance for the game-winning play because of a pass interference call in the end zone against the Tigers.
2. It’s amazing how schools continue to hire coaching retreads coming off job failures while Army’s Jeff Monken continues to do what he does best – win. If it’s because Monken has only been a head coach at triple option programs (first Georgia Southern, now Army) that’s incredibly short-sighted. How difficult is it to hire a top-notch offensive coordinator to oversee the unit? Monken can flat-out coach. He proved that by going 38-16 at Georgia Southern and now with the Black Knights, who are 6-2 and bowl eligible for the third straight year after beating Eastern Michigan on Saturday. The past three years, Monken has transformed a downtrodden program at West Point by going a combined 24-10. Surely there’s a program in need that understands a good coach is a good coach and that an offense can be handled be someone who best fits that school’s desires. Some school will take a chance on Monken and get rewarded for it.
Tom Luicci was the national college football and basketball writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. from 1979-2014.