The Essay Question
Four top teams. Four statements wins.
Notre Dame boasts one of the nation's best defenses and is also in the thick of the championship race. The Irish barely edged BYU at home and will get their chance for a big win next Saturday night at Oklahoma.
But this weekend, all of the talk deserves to be about Alabama, Florida, Kansas State and Oregon, teams that would make for a nice four-team playoff. The top four in the BCS standings won by a total score of 186-59. Those numbers are typical, if we're talking about a random weekend in September in which these programs pay a bunch of WAC and Sun Belt teams hundreds of thousands of dollars to get blown out.
These numbers are not typical the third Saturday in October, against four conference opponents, three on the road, two ranked, one a bitter rival. But here we are. Alabama smoked Tennessee in Knoxville 44-13. Florida forced key turnovers to beat South Carolina 44-11 at home in The Swamp. Kansas State embarrassed a reeling West Virginia squad 55-14 in Morgantown. And, on Thursday night, Oregon scored 43 points in less than 19 minutes before shifting into neutral the rest of the way in a 43-21 rout at Arizona State.
Yes, Tennessee is a broken team. Yes, South Carolina was playing without a healthy Marcus Lattimore in the third game of a grueling stretch. Yes, West Virginia was blown out at Texas Tech. Yes, Arizona State lost to a Missouri team that's winless in the SEC. You can find flaws with all four wins. You also can't say the four victors left no doubt. Even Florida, which struggled to move the ball much of the game, won going away and got four touchdowns from quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Style points are important in college football, so winning by a field goal every week isn't going to cut it (Notre Dame will do its best to disprove this statement). You have to win, and win convincingly, and these four teams looked like legitimate national title contenders this weekend.
So, how is the national title race shaping up?
1. Alabama. The defending champs haven't given anyone a reason to drop them from the top spot. They have a tough three-game stretch against Mississippi State, at LSU and against Texas A&M, but they're the clear favorites. The running game is great with T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy, A.J. McCarron hasn't thrown a pick and the defense is as good as ever.
2. Oregon. The Ducks are impressive every week, but they still don't have a signature win. That can change soon. Oregon must travel to USC Nov. 3, host Stanford Nov. 17 and go to Oregon State Nov. 24 … and then possibly play USC again in the Pac-12 title game. Kenjon Barner is starting to get Heisman attention after rushing for 143 yards and three touchdowns before Arizona State could blink.
3. Kansas State. The Wildcats look unbeatable right now, but they could still stumble with games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas at home and TCU and Baylor on the road still left. They play a nine-game conference schedule, which makes things tougher, but it may even out because they avoid playing a conference title game. Bill Snyder and Collin Klein form a perfect pair.
4. Florida. The Gators beat Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina. Their résumé is incredibly impressive, and they still have games against Georgia and at Florida State. So why are they fourth here? The assumption is they'll have to beat Alabama in the SEC title game. Of course, depending on what happens elsewhere, there's always that "rematch" word.
5. Notre Dame. The Irish have a bunch of solid wins, but not one against an elite team. Well, they go to Oklahoma this week and USC to end the season. There's a good chance they'll lose both. Then again, their defense doesn't give up anything to anyone.
Oklahoma, LSU and USC can both get back into the mix by notching big wins against Notre Dame, Alabama and Oregon, respectively, over the next few weeks, but they have no margin for error. Oregon State, Rutgers, Louisville, Mississippi State and Ohio are all undefeated, but it's hard to imagine any of them emerging from the season unscathed. An undefeated Big East team stands almost no chance of going to the national title game anyway, and an undefeated season doesn't even guarantee Ohio a BCS bowl bid at this point.
West Virginia fooled us. I apologize. I was fooled. Most people were fooled. Shiny objects can be distracting, and that was the case with a West Virginia offense that put up 70 against Baylor and won 48-45 at Texas. But the warning signs were there. For example, West Virginia needed to score 70 because it gave up 63 to Baylor, which is now 3-3. Or there's the fact that the Mountaineers entered the week ranked 118th against the pass and have no ability to stop anything that moves. Geno Smith is a talented player, and the Mountaineers have explosive receivers, but now it's painfully obvious this team can't contend for a Big 12 title after a 49-14 loss at Texas Tech and a 55-14 loss to Kansas State. With TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma next on the schedule, Dana Holgorsen needs to stop this from spiraling out of control, if it hasn't already.
LSU's defense is still fantastic. Let's not forget about the Tigers, as their 14-6 loss to Florida is nothing to be ashamed of. The Tigers held South Carolina and Texas A&M to a total of 40 points the last two games, and they beat the Aggies on Saturday in the most Les Miles way imaginable. The defense stifled Johnny Manziel's rushing ability, holding him to 27 yards on 17 carries, and he tossed three interceptions with no touchdowns. Freshman LSU running back Jeremy Hill had another big game, rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown. And the passing game was dreadful, with Zach Mettenberger completing 11 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. Ninety-seven passing yards: Exactly what you'd expect to beat a Kevin Sumlin offense on the road.
Texas Tech can win any type of game. I refused to take Texas Tech seriously when it boasted the No. 1 defense in the nation after wins against Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico and Iowa State. The Red Raiders proceeded to lose by three touchdowns to Oklahoma, and I thought I was right. Well, not so much. Texas Tech bounced back by blowing out West Virginia 49-14, and then winning a Mike Leach-style 56-53 thriller at TCU in three overtimes. TCU has a great defense of its own, but Texas Tech QB Seth Doege threw seven touchdowns and no interceptions, giving him a ridiculous 13 touchdown passes over the last two games and at least five in each of his last four games. Now comes the real test: Texas Tech goes to Manhattan, Kan., for a crucial Big 12 clash with undefeated Kansas State, looking to play spoiler and jump right into the Big 12 title race.
Don't fire your coach if there isn't a better replacement available. CC: Ole Miss. Let's take a moment to honor Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe led Ole Miss to four bowl games in six years, including a 2003 season in which Eli Manning led the Rebels to the Cotton Bowl and their first 10-win season since 1972. A year later, Ole Miss went 4-7, fired Cutcliffe and hired Ed Orgeron, who proceeded to win a total of 10 games in three years (to be fair, the Rebels then went to back-to-back Cotton Bowls under Houston Nutt). Well, it took five years, but Cutcliffe has Duke (Duke!) going to a bowl game. That's right: The Blue Devils are bowl eligible, with four games still to go. The last time Duke played in a bowl, it lost to Wisconsin in the 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl, a year in which Cutcliffe was the position coach for a freshman quarterback named Peyton Manning in Knoxville. Not only are the Blue Devils bowl eligible, they did it by scoring with 13 seconds left to beat hated rival North Carolina, 33-30, for only the second time in the last 23 meetings. Oh, there's this too: 3-1 Duke has sole possession of first place in the ACC Coastal.
The Big Ten can still be fun. There's not a national title contender here. But, despite all the deserved criticism, the Big Ten remains interesting in several ways. Ohio State survived a Braxton Miller injury and came back to beat Purdue in overtime to stay undefeated. Penn State thoroughly dominated Iowa Saturday night, and Bill O'Brien has put together one of the best coaching performances in the country. Wisconsin got 341 rushing yards from James White and Montee Ball against Minnesota. Nebraska overcame a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to win at Northwestern thanks to a brilliant passing day from Taylor Martinez. And it may have been ugly, but Michigan kicked a field goal with five seconds left to beat rival Michigan State. If we ignore Indiana's loss to Navy, a lot of interesting stuff happened in the league on Saturday, and a lot of interesting stuff can continue to happen. Just because the conference is miles away from the national title race doesn't mean it won't be entertaining when teams get to play each other instead of losing to Central Michigan and getting blown out by Alabama.
At this point, it's very likely that Wisconsin and Michigan will meet in the conference title game with a Rose Bowl bid on the line. That's what many expected in the preseason, and despite some really rough patches, both teams now lead their divisions. Technically, however, Wisconsin is third in its division -- arguably the two best teams in the Big Ten are Ohio State and Penn State, which are a combined 7-0 in the conference and meet next Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium in the Mark Emmert Bowl, or the Ineligibowl, or whatever you want to call it.
Grading the Rest of the Weekend
A: The State of Oklahoma
Oklahoma steamrolled hapless Kansas, 52-7, to set up its top-10 showdown with Notre Dame. Oklahoma State moved to 4-2 with a 31-10 win over No. 24 Iowa State, getting 415 passing yards from freshman J.W. Walsh and 151 rushing yards from Joseph Randle. And Tulsa, while not exactly impressive in a last-minute 28-24 win over Rice, survived to move to 7-1, 5-0 in Conference USA. Good times for all.
The Cardinal totally controlled the rivalry game with California and may have begun the process of signing Jeff Tedford's pink slip in Berkeley. After a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame, Stanford rebounded to win 21-3 behind Stepfan Taylor, who had 189 rushing yards and a touchdown, and tight end Zach Ertz, who caught six passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.
It was a bizarre 38-17 win for Clemson over Virginia Tech, as, while the Tigers did score 38 points, the defense was largely responsible for the win. Clemson forced four Virginia Tech turnovers, including a 74-yard interception return for Jonathan Meeks that put Clemson ahead by 10 in the second quarter, but managed only 295 yards on offense (the Tigers had been averaging 526 per game).
Rich Rodriguez got his first Pac-12 win, as the Wildcats put up 50 points for the fourth time this season, beating Washington 52-17. Arizona turned the ball over a couple times, but QB Matt Scott had five total touchdowns, and RB Ka'Deem Casey had his fifth 100-yard game with 172 yards and a score.
B-: Rutgers and Mississippi State
Two of the nation's unheralded unbeaten teams stayed that way thanks to dominant second-half efforts. Rutgers trailed Temple, 10-0, at halftime before Gary Nova went on a four-TD tear, and star linebacker Khaseem Greene capped off the game with a fumble return for a TD to give Rutgers a 35-10 win. Mississippi State held a slim 10-3 halftime lead over Middle Tennessee but scored five second-half touchdowns to win 45-3. Both teams are 7-0. Next for Rutgers? Kent State and Army. Next for Mississippi State? Uh, at Alabama.
C+: Oregon State
Oregon State continues to get the job done, even if it's rather ugly. Utah isn't particularly good this year, yet the Beavers were still held to only 227 yards of offense as backup QB Cody Vaz fell back to earth. Still, their defense has been lights-out and forced four turnovers, and Storm Woods rushed for three touchdowns. They're already bowl eligible, doubling their win total from all of last season.
Despite holding a 14-3 halftime lead, the Cardinals needed a late rally to stay unbeaten against South Florida, which has won one Big East game the last season and a half. Teddy Bridgewater (who completed 21 of 25 passes) connected with Eli Rogers for an 11-yard TD with 1:35 left to give Louisville a 27-25 win heading into Friday's battle for the Keg of Nails against Cincinnati.
The Bulldogs trailed Kentucky by a point in the third quarter, which means they should probably get only half a win this week. It's Kentucky. With next week's Cocktail Party against Florida looming, Georgia edged the 1-7 Wildcats 29-24, at least getting a great effort from Aaron Murray, who threw for 427 yards and four touchdowns with no turnovers.
I picked Cincinnati's trip to Toledo as this week's wild-card game to watch, and not only was it worth watching, but the Rockets actually pulled off the upset for the Bearcats' first loss of the season. Somehow, Cincinnati lost to a MAC team that didn't even score an offensive touchdown. In its 29-23 win, Toledo kicked five field goals and scored TDs on a 75-yard interception and a 91-yard kick return.
The only reason this isn't an "F" is Houston did score 42 points. The problem for the Cougars was they allowed 72 points in its Thursday-night loss to SMU. How did Houston allow 72 points? Probably by turning the ball over NINE TIMES. Two interceptions were thrown by THREE DIFFERENT QUARTERBACKS. If only Case Keenum had a seventh year of eligibility.
F: Wyoming coach Dave Christensen
We found out Christensen is rather fond of the letter F, as he revealed to Air Force coach Troy Calhoun last week. Well, things aren't getting any better. The Cowboys lost to Fresno State 42-14, and their only win is an overtime game against Idaho. This comes after Christensen coached Wyoming to the New Mexico Bowl in two of the last three years, for whatever that's worth.
Auburn deserves its own category at this point. The Tigers lost at Vanderbilt, 17-13, totaling 212 yards. They've lost to Arkansas, Ole Miss and Vandy in consecutive weeks. Their only win was in overtime against the Sun Belt's Louisiana-Monroe. Gene Chizik's head-coaching record without Cam Newton is 22-35. To make matters worse, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen is out for the year. The only good news? In the mind of gold-medalist Ryan Lochte, Auburn won the LSU-Texas A&M game.
Incomplete: Team That Played Colorado
Congratulations to this week's winner, USC! Matt Barkley completed 19 of 20 passes with six touchdowns in a 50-6 drubbing to move the Trojans to 6-1. In its last four losses, Colorado has been out-scored 212-51 by Fresno State, UCLA, Arizona State and USC. Somehow, Colorado beat Washington State. Sorry, Mike Leach.
Matt Barkley, QB, and Robert Woods, WR, USC: Barkley and Woods both broke records in Saturday's blowout win over Colorado. With his six touchdown passes, Barkley broke Matt Leinart's USC and Pac-12 career records for TD passes with 102. With his eight catches for 132 yards and four touchdowns, Woods broke USC's receptions record, previously held by Dwayne Jarrett.
Kasey Carrier, RB, New Mexico: What's amazing is that New Mexico lost to Air Force, 28-23. It's safe to say the loss was not the responsibility of Carrier. He ran 39 times for 338 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 690 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the last three games. Not bad for someone who's only 5-foot-9, 180 pounds.
Kenneth Dixon, RB Louisiana Tech: Dixon didn't even open the year as starter. That was freshman Tevin King, who tore his ACL Sept. 24. Dixon, also a freshman, replaced King and broke out in a 70-28 win over Idaho, rushing 17 times for 232 yards and six touchdowns.
Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois: Lynch is looking exactly like the guy who he replaced, Chandler Harnish. Last year, Harnish had 39 total touchdowns. In a 37-7 win against Akron, Lynch ran for 131 yards and had four total TDs. He's rushed for 100 yards in seven of eight games and has 14 rushing TDs and 13 passing TDs.
Student of the Year
If I had a Heisman ballot …
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. The only obvious choice at this point after Geno Smith's stock plummeted the last two weeks. Klein took advantage of a horrible West Virginia defense, completing 19 of 21 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns with 41 rushing yards and four more touchdowns.
2. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame. Another 10 tackles, another interception. Te'o doesn't have stats that totally jump off the page, but he's the best player on one of the three or four best defenses in the country. The defense has carried the Irish to an undefeated record, and as long as they remain unbeaten, Te'o deserves consideration in a wide-open race.
3. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State. Miller missed a significant chunk of Ohio State's overtime win against Purdue because of a scary injury that sent him to the hospital. The good news is Miller was released fairly quickly and declared "symptom free," so now we'll wait and see about his status for Saturday night's game at Penn State. Entering the Purdue game, he ranked seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game.
Dri Archer Touchdown Report
Our all-purpose Kent State football hero entered the week averaging 229 total yards per game, but he was fairly "quiet" this week with just 115 yards, none on special teams. Still, he kept the do-it-all touchdown tally going, scoring another two on the ground to help lead Kent State to a 41-24 win over Western Michigan and a 6-1 record.
Archer's 2012 touchdowns:
Towson: 15-yard run, 98-yard kick return, 18-yard run
Kentucky: 47-yard run
Buffalo: 11-yard run
Ball State: 99-yard kick return, 23-yard catch, 33-yard catch
Eastern Michigan: Five-yard catch, 98-yard kick return, 64-yard run
Army: 24-yard pass, 87-yard run
Western Michigan: 22-yard run, 10-yard run
Bowl Eligibility Tracker
There are 35 bowls, which means 70 bowl spots. The last thing we want is for college football to come up short, forcing it to dip into the pool of sub-.500 teams. Eligible teams (six wins) as of Oct. 20:
27*: Alabama, Boise State, Clemson, Duke (!!!), Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Kansas State, Kent State, LSU, Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Mississippi State, Nevada, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio, Oregon, Oregon State, Rutgers, South Carolina, Texas Tech, Toledo, Tulsa, Utah State, Wisconsin
*Ohio State has eight wins but is ineligible for postseason play.
Ranking the remaining games based on national championship implications:
1. LSU at Alabama, Nov. 3
2. Oregon at USC, Nov. 3
3. Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Oct. 27
4. Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 27
5. Oregon at Oregon State, Nov. 24
On the Syllabus for Week 9
Notre Dame is 7-0, but the Fighting Irish get their toughest test yet when they travel to Norman for a prime-time kickoff with Oklahoma. Win this, and Notre Dame has three very winnable games before the season-closing trip to USC. Additionally, No. 1 Alabama hosts fellow unbeaten Mississippi State, Florida could lock up the SEC East title by beating Georgia at the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, Kansas State hosts a very solid Texas Tech team, and Penn State hosts Ohio State in the battle of Big Ten ineligibles. Also, you may want to put parental controls on the Pac-12 Network at 3 p.m. ET when Oregon plays Colorado.