By “Professor” Tom Luicci

Five questions

 Q.  Can we just fast forward to Alabama-Clemson in the national championship game now?

It’s pretty obvious those two are helmets and shoulder pads above every other team in the country. Here’s the scary part: Both appear to be getting better as the season progresses. Assuming both go unbeaten, that leaves the third and fourth playoff spots up for grabs, with Notre Dame, Michigan and the Oklahoma-West Virginia winner the current frontrunners for them. The interesting debate will be if the Irish slip up at, say, Syracuse and finish 11-1 and Michigan runs the table to go 12-1. The Wolverines would be one of the best four teams in the country in that scenario but Notre Dame owns a head-to-head victory over Michigan from its opening game. The Irish also will have played a weak schedule – outside of Michigan the eight teams they’ve beaten are a combined 32-40 and all have four losses or more. So would one of those two get edged out? More to the point: who could possibly sneak in? Oklahoma and West Virginia are flawed defensively and incomplete teams despite dazzling quarterback play (and may have to play back to back games against each other). Ohio State looks like it is going through the motions – and its defense isn’t that good, either. Washington State and UCF have fattened up at the expense of the softest schedules possible, making it almost impossible to build a case for either.

QWhich is the worst Power 5 division – the Big Ten West, the ACC Coastal or the Pac 12 South?

We’re probably splitting hairs here, but here goes. Northwestern leads the Big Ten West and is 5-4 overall heading into a “key” test against at Iowa on Saturday. Pittsburgh, also 5-4 overall, leads the ACC Coastal and might have locked up the division if not for a loss to 1-7 North Carolina (the Panthers were also drubbed by a mediocre Penn State team in non-conference play). The Pac 12 South race finds Utah, USC and Arizona all at 4-3 in league play and Arizona State at 3-3. Utah owns the best overall record at 6-3 but lost QB Tyler Huntley to a broken collarbone on Saturday. With USC and Arizona State at 5-4 overall and Arizona at 5-5, it likely means the division winner will have four losses – maybe five – entering the Pac-12 title game.

Q.  Does any fan base embrace mediocrity more than Iowa’s?

Yes, we know. One more win league means Kirk Ferentz will join Woody Hayes, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno as the only coaches to win 150 Big Ten games. But two more losses – after the Hawkeyes squandered a big opportunity in a loss to Purdue on Saturday – means Ferentz will have lost five games or more for the eighth time in the past nine years. But he’s a good guy, is well liked, does great work in the community and has a lifetime contract as a result. With Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska left, Iowa – 6-3 overall and 3-3 in Big Ten play – has a chance to finish strong. If it doesn’t, it’s just another season of mediocrity for a fan base that seems quite content with that.

Q. Is there a better story in college football than UAB’s rise to prominence just two years after the football program was re-instated?

The Blazers are 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the West Division of Conference USA after routing UTSA, 52-3, on Saturday. This was a program that was shut down in 2014 because of budgetary reasons, then was re-instated – only to need a two-year hiatus before starting play again last September. Head coach Bill Clark led UAB to an 8-5 record and a bowl game in the program’s return in 2017 and now has the Blazers on a school record seven-game winning streak. The closing schedule is tough – Southern Miss, Texas A&M and Middle Tennessee – but maybe a couple of struggling programs might want to consider a two-year hiatus to re-group (hint: Rutgers).

Q.  Can we now say that that it’s more difficult to go winless than to be unbeaten?

In case you didn’t notice, UTEP broke its 20-game losing streak with a 34-26 victory over Rice, becoming the last FBS team to win a game this year – and doing so just a week after San Jose State escaped the winless ranks. The Miners hadn’t won a game since Nov. 26, 2016, when they beat North Texas. So there are no winless teams left but there are four – Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and UCF – unbeaten teams remaining.

 

On the rise

Utah State (8-1)

Aggies’ 56-17 romp at Hawaii was their eighth straight win (the lone loss was 38-31 to Michigan State in the opener) and the seventh time this year they have scored 40 or more. The start is the program’s best since 1963.

Baylor (5-4)

It’s only one win, but Saturday’s victory over Oklahoma State has the Bears just shy of bowl eligibility – a year after going 1-11 in Matt Rhule’s first season taking over a scandal-ridden program. Finding that sixth win will be tough with Iowa State, TCU and Texas Tech left, but it’s within reach.

Boston College (7-2)

A three-game winning streak has the Eagles playing for the ACC’s Atlantic Division lead when Clemson visits this weekend, which probably means the winning ways will come to a halt. But simply getting into contention for this opportunity is a solid accomplishment.

 

On the decline

Florida (6-3)

So much for the revival in Gainesville. Gators have lost their last two – to Georgia and Missouri – by a combined 74-34. How is it even possible that this program can’t find a competent quarterback?

Navy (2-7)

Maybe the decision to join a conference wasn’t such a good one after all. Midshipmen lost their sixth straight and were shut out for the first time in six years in a 42-0 loss to Cincinnati and won’t be bowl bound for the first time since 2011.

Minnesota (4-5)

P.J. Fleck’s boat is in full Titanic mode now. After being overpowered by lowly Illinois on Saturday, Golden Gophers have lost five of six with Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin left. That looks like 4-8.

 

Who’s hot

Reggie Corbin, RB, Illinois

Rushed for 213 yards and two TDs – both over 70 yards – in a 55-31 victory over free-falling Minnesota, becoming the first Illini player to rush for two touchdowns of 70 yards or more (72 and 77) since 1944.

Khalil Tate, QB, Arizona

A year ago in a victory over Colorado he set an FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 327. On Saturday he passed for a career-high 350 yards and five TDs in a victory over the Buffs.

Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

After throwing interceptions on the Sooners’ first two possessions, he bounced back to pass for 360 yards and three TDs while rushing for two more scores and 100 yards in a 51-46 victory at Texas Tech that kept OU’s playoff hopes alive.

 

Who’s not

Kansas State special teams

A missed PAT, a botched FG attempt and a muffed were all factors in a 14-13 loss to wobbly TCU that left the Wildcats at 3-6 and needing to win their final three to become bowl eligible.

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State

Remember when he was a good player? The one-time Heisman hopeful was 5-of-13 for 83 yards with an interception and no TD passes and finished with minus six yards rushing in a dreadful 42-7 loss to Michigan.

Feleipe Franks, QB, Florida

Benched late in the third quarter – with the home crowd lustily cheering his departure – Franks finished 9-of-22 for 84 yards with no TD passes and rushed for just 17 yards against a Missouri defense that is usually quite generous in a 38-17 loss.

 

Playing it forward

The top games of the coming week

Ohio State at Michigan State, noon, FOX

Are the Buckeyes going to finally get their act together to make a playoff push? They’ve almost look disinterested this season. Spartans have found their footing a bit by winning two straight and the environment could make it tough on Ohio State.

Mississippi State at Alabama, 3:30, CBS

It will be interesting to see how The Tide comes out of one physical game and follows it up a week later with another one. Being home will make the difference, although the Bulldogs have righted their season a bit by winning their last two and three of their last four.

Clemson at Boston College, 8, ABC

Take a bow if you saw Clemson-BC being for the Atlantic Division lead in this one. Tigers have been on a roll of late, smashing their way through everyone. BC gets the homefield advantage and a night game that should make for a good atmosphere and has won three straight to go to 7-2.

 

Story Lines

1. Kudos to West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen for going for the win with a two-point conversion try with 16 seconds left – not once, but twice – in a 42-41 victory at Texas to keep the Mountaineers tied with Oklahoma atop the Big 12 standings at 5-1. West Virginia had to try a second time after its first successful two-point attempt was nullified by a late Texas time out. So what happens going forward? Assume Oklahoma and West Virginia win their next two games before their Nov. 23 showdown in Morgantown. There’s a very real possibility they could meet again eight days later in the Big 12 championship game, which would undermine the league’s hopes of having a playoff contender if they split those games. It’s a potential nightmare scenario for a league desperate to be part of the playoff picture.

2. Want to know why Top 25 poll voters often have a difficult time with Group of Five teams being voted in the rankings with better records over some Power 5 schools? Houston and South Florida are why. No. 17 Houston was rolling along at 7-1 and played its first game as a ranked team in seven years on Saturday – and promptly laid an egg in a loss to mediocre SMU. USF started the season 7-0 and reached No. 21 in the rankings. The Bulls were then blown out by Houston and 4-5 Tulane. It happens way to often to the wannabes of the college football world. Losing as a ranked team is one thing. Losing as a ranked team against an opponent with a losing record underscores the inconsistency in the non-Power 5 ranks.

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