Saturday's trip to Happy Valley marks a new kind of crossroads for the Michigan football team. If No. 2 Penn State, a 9.5-point favorite, hands the Wolverines their second loss of the season, they risk becoming something they haven't been since the day Jim Harbaugh walked through the doors at Schembechler Hall in 2014: uninteresting.
Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst -- arguably the best defender on arguably the best defense in the country through the first half of the season -- says he's looking at the game against the Nittany Lions as a chance for vindication.
Redemption isn't exactly the theme you'd expect to hear from a 5-1 team that beat its upcoming opponent by nearly 40 points a year ago. But after losing to Michigan State and squeaking past Indiana in consecutive weeks, Michigan is slipping from its spot on the upper tier of the Big Ten, a spot where its players think it belongs.
"What an opportunity to show ourselves after two kind-of-tough games," Hurst said Monday afternoon. "... They were both really tough games. [This is an] opportunity to redeem ourselves and keep ourselves in the talks for the playoffs and the Big Ten championship."
Most objective observers didn't expect Michigan to be in those conversations at the outset of the season. Oddsmakers looked at the personnel turnover on both sides of the ball and saw an eight- or nine-win team. The local newspapers largely agreed. ESPN's Football Power Index predicted 8.4 wins in 2017. If Michigan continues with its current mix of productive progress and growing pains, those projections could end up being spot on.
But for some reason, hitting expectations on the nose feels as if it would be seen as a disappointment.
Perhaps that's because the defense has been dominant enough (the nation's best in total yards allowed and third-down stops) to threaten the three top-10 teams remaining on the schedule and keep Michigan in any game it plays. Maybe it's due in part to how defiantly this team brushed aside the notion that youth could be a hindrance after it beat what has turned out to be a subpar Florida team to open the season.
More than likely, though, it's because under Harbaugh, Michigan has been anything but boring for the past three years. Year 1 brought a surprisingly quick ascent. Year 2 was chock full of blowout wins and heartbreaking losses.
In between, Harbaugh has filled the time with unorthodox innovations and oddball offseason headlines. He has kept the college football world guessing, which is why seeing him and his team do what is expected of them is a bit of a letdown. Scraping out close wins against unranked teams is boring -- not necessarily for those taking part in the moment, but in the grand scheme of things.
"It doesn't have to be that way," Harbaugh said Saturday when asked if that would be the formula for Michigan the rest of the way. "We can grow. We can learn."
Hurst said pulling out a close win against Indiana leads him to believe that the defense still has its best football in front of it. Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said his unit will take strides forward with discipline this week.
On offense, quarterback John O'Korn said that he "has to pick it up, no way around it." Harbaugh said the fifth-year senior under center could also use some help from the 10 other players around him.
Michigan's players didn't shy away from calling this weekend a make-or-break type of challenge for them. Safety Tyree Kinnel said the team noticed and discussed that they slipped two spots (from No. 17 to No. 19) in the AP poll after beating Indiana.
"It's a big stage for us Saturday," Kinnel said. "We're already down one game, and we want to get back in the picture. I think we do have something to prove this week."
If Michigan does knock off the Nittany Lions on the road, then its turn at the crossroads of relevance will be sharply positive. A victory would cement Michigan in that postseason conversation until mid-November as a plucky, battle-tested group that finds a way to do enough to complement its defense. Lose the game, though, and that learning and growing period is likely to happen with a little less attention than this group has grown accustomed to.
Penn State is pulling Michigan into the spotlight for one of the country's biggest games this Saturday night. Will it kick the Wolverines off the big stage by Sunday?
They all looked at each other and immediately knew.
Coach Scott Frost walked over, wearing cleats, a shirt, shorts and helmet. He stepped under center, barked instructions and snapped the ball. Then he did it again. And again.
"He's running, dropping dimes," linebacker Chequan Burkett said. "You just think in your head, 'Hey man, this guy won a national championship doing this, so it's a wonderful experience to be able to face a quarterback who really did this and happens to be our head coach. He's giving us a great look. If he puts on shoulder pads and full gear, you'd really think he'd want to play us."
For Frost, the decision to run the scout team was an easy one. With both Georgia Tech and Navy on the 2017 schedule -- UCF visits the Midshipmen on Saturday -- Frost and his staff knew they had to start practice against the option months in advance. Most teams do that, just to get their teams acquainted with the offense.
Given his background, Frost figured it would be easier to play quarterback himself than begin to teach it to one of his players. And at age 42, he still runs and works out regularly so his conditioning would not be a problem.
"There is an art to playing option quarterback," he says. "I can't tell you how many reps I have at doing that kind of stuff. Even though I'm slow and old, it's probably still better than somebody that's doing it for the first time."
The reps have to seemingly number in the millions, going all the way back to when he ran the veer at Wood River High. After transferring to Nebraska in 1995, he starred in the option offense for the Huskers and led the team to a 13-0 record and a share of the national championship in 1997.
Though he played defensive back in the NFL, Frost never lost his love for the option. The spread offense he learned under Chip Kelly and runs at UCF employs option principles as well. But what Georgia Tech and the service academies do is so rare, Frost said, "I feel like options quarterbacks now are kinda like giant pandas. They only exist in zoos and military academies."
UCF practiced against the spread at least once a week during spring and fall practice. But it is not only Frost taking the scout team reps. He continues to alternate snaps with freshman Darriel Mack Jr., who is redshirting this season. The Week 3 game against Georgia Tech ended up getting canceled because of Hurricane Irma, but the early preparation has been beneficial now that Navy game week has arrived.
"He wanted to make sure that when the time came for us to play an option team that it wasn't a surprise," linebacker Shaquem Griffin said. "We didn't understand then, 'Why are we doing this now?' But going through the first day of practice Monday and everybody flying around and fitting the right spots, it showed what we did in spring and summer is paying off. I feel we're a step ahead. It's not like we're learning something new."
Players also detected a bit more intensity from Frost, starting Monday.
"He's a lot more focused," noseguard Jamiyus Pittman said. "His face is a lot more serious, there's no more smiles and giggles. He's running it like he's back at Nebraska. I'm not even mad at him because that's the best look we can get.
"I tried to run him down from the back side and I didn't catch him, so I don't know if the looks can get any better than that."
Said Frost, coyly: "I don't know about that. I've just done it so much that I want to give them the best look that I can and our offensive coaches are doing such a good job they don't need me over there. ... I'll take a pulled hammy for the team."
Players also noticed that Frost went without a chinstrap on his helmet this week during practice.
"It must be an old-school thing: I don't need a chin strap, I just throw on the helmet and play football," Griffin said. "He had us laughing all practice every time he put the helmet on with no chin strap. He doesn't care about getting hit, obviously."
Said Pittman: "We probably need to hit him to let him know he needs to put his chin strap on."
Frost wasn't having it.
"Well, they all know if they hit me they're in trouble," Frost said.
Frost has not worn full pads yet but says he is thinking about possibly putting them on for practice later this week. But getting hit is not something that scares Frost. "Blowing a hammy or an Achilles' -- that's what scares me," he said.
And the hardest part about this entire endeavor?
"Putting the cleats on is the worst part," Frost said. "My feet aren't used to those things."
The pain is worth it. Because now his team is used to defending the option.
No. 4 TCU, which on Sunday achieved its highest ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 in two years, sits atop the Big 12 at 6-0 and is the conference's lone undefeated team and best shot at a College Football Playoff berth.
Patterson said he's focusing on Kansas, the Horned Frogs' opponent this week. But even he knows that as his team tries to keep its focus singular, outsiders will zero in on the big picture: TCU's chances at making the playoff.
Asked on Saturday, after a 26-6 road victory over Kansas State, about how good the Horned Frogs are, Patterson said, "Everybody else will determine that" come the end of this season, once TCU's résumé is complete. On Monday, when asked about how close his team is to its potential, Patterson said he's unsure: "The first part's been difficult, but now everybody pays a lot more attention."
There's no doubt that TCU's chances at a championship -- and the role outsiders, particularly the 13 members of the playoff selection committee, play into the team's chances -- loom in the back of Patterson's mind. The events of 2014, when the Horned Frogs went from No. 3 in the selection committee's rankings in the penultimate week to No. 6 and out of the playoff when it was all said and done, certainly linger in the coach's thinking. TCU's best chance, he knows, is to run the table and not leave anything to chance.
The road to perfection, however, is arduous.
"We've been here before [as a program]," Patterson said Monday. "[In] '08, '09 and '10, we went 36-3, and what I found, even then, no matter what league you're in, you're going to win some games that are not going to look pretty. Especially when you've got to go on the road to the places we have. ... When you have to go to Lubbock, you have to go to Ames ... those are hard places to play. So it's really hard for me to look ahead and think about being undefeated."
Patterson's approach is the right one, because his team still has things to improve. Even in a quality road win such as the one on Saturday, the Horned Frogs showed they have room to grow. They won by 20 in a game they could have -- and probably should have -- won by more. It was one of those less-than-pretty wins.
When senior quarterback Kenny Hill was asked if the Horned Frogs left some points or big plays on the field vs. the Wildcats, he said, "Absolutely.”
"I know one play for sure, I went up there and checked and called the protection the wrong way," Hill said. "It was on a little screen pass, and I called the protection the wrong way and we get smacked in the backfield. It's little stuff like that that holds us back."
There were moments when TCU looked dominant, but it didn't necessarily show on the scoreboard. In the first half, the Horned Frogs held Kansas State to just 71 yards (2.4 yards per play) and 0-for-8 on third downs -- but TCU led at halftime only 13-3. And a Kansas State touchdown pass was taken off the board by an offensive pass interference penalty. There also was a second-quarter TCU drive that went inside the 10 but resulted in only a field goal. Plus, a TCU turnover kept the Horned Frogs from expanding the lead.
When the fourth quarter began, with TCU holding a 20-6 lead, the Horned Frogs dropped back-to-back passes on what would have been big plays to keep a drive going. The second one looked like it had the potential to go for a TD. Instead, TCU punted. The defense was stout and the Wildcats never seriously threatened, but the Horned Frogs know they have to take advantage of those opportunities.
Hill said he doesn't think TCU is anywhere near its potential. "Honestly, I don't think we're that close," he said. "We do some really good things, and then there's times that we get into lulls and all that stuff. I feel like we have a lot more that we can bring in a game. But we're 6-0. We can't complain."
Said receiver John Diarse: "I totally agree with Kenny. We're not where we need to be. That's just more work ahead of us."
TCU can't afford to overlook the Jayhawks, anyway. The last two seasons, Kansas -- despite its combined 2-22 record over that span -- has played the Horned Frogs competitively. Last season TCU squeaked out a 24-23 victory, and in 2015 the Horned Frogs won 23-17.
And while Kansas is not the caliber of team that Cal or Syracuse is, it's not lost on Patterson or his players that the upsets of Clemson and Washington State on Friday are evidence of what can happen if a top-10 team doesn't play its best.
"It can be gone just like that," Diarse said. "You can go from top-five, top-six, to 23 to unranked. ... This team is much more mature than last year. We understand that, hey, we're trying to get to December. October, on the road, that's tough, but we want to be relevant when December comes around."
Said Patterson: "It only takes one. If you didn't learn anything last Friday night, at any point in time, anybody can beat anybody. You only have to be the best team on that night. ... I didn't change anything yesterday when I came in the office at 9 o'clock in the morning and started getting ready for Kansas."
USC quarterback Sam Darnold insists that when he's on the field, he tries to stay in the moment.
It can be, however, a battle against human nature. The stakes for what each game means to the season are too high not to think about at times.
"I try not to, but sometimes it can slip into your mind, honestly," Darnold said. "But at the same time, I try to stay on course. Personally, I think I do that really well."
One of those tests came Saturday. USC went into halftime against Utah down 14 points. It was the Trojans' biggest deficit of the season and Darnold had turned it over three times. For a team with College Football Playoff aspirations and a loss already to its record, another defeat would have effectively ended any realistic hope for accomplishing its preseason goals. And if that happened, Darnold would have shouldered a lot of the blame.
Did those thoughts slip into your mind against Utah, Sam?
"Umm, no," he said unconvincingly with a smile on his face.
Darnold was able to have fun with the question because, in the second half against the Utes, he rediscovered the form that made him the darling of the offseason. He led the Trojans on three touchdown drives of 88-plus yards and a stop from the defense on Utah's go-ahead, two-point conversion attempt in the final minute allowed the team to breathe easy.
The night before No. 8 Washington State was run off the field in Berkeley and a couple hours after the USC game went final, Arizona State fans were rushing the field to celebrate a shocking 13-7 victory against No. 5 Washington. USC, all of sudden, is again the Pac-12 team best positioned for a shot at the playoff.
The reality about playoff discussions in mid-October is that there is too much season left to make any definitive statements about who will be in and who will be out. Will a 1-loss USC make the playoff? It's fun to ask, but the only acceptable answer is boring: maybe. There are possible scenarios in which it would get in and a few in which it wouldn't.
USC hasn't looked like a playoff team, but its nonconference schedule -- Western Michigan, Texas and this week at Notre Dame -- is strong enough that a 12-1 record would stack up well against other one-loss Power 5 champions. That's not the case for Washington and Washington State, both of which entered last week firmly a part of the playoff discussion only to flame out against unranked teams that had been struggling.
"The tough thing is if you've had some success, you get to that midway point and it happens every year, a bunch of teams get upset," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "It was my hope we were mentally tougher than that, but we're not."
Mathematically, though, both Washington schools aren't out of it, either. Their margins for error are just about nonexistent, but who would have thought a Clemson loss to Syracuse was possible? There will be more upsets to come and any one-loss Power 5 champion will certainly receive strong consideration from the committee (See: Washington, 2016).
Just don't expect Huskies coach Chris Petersen to handicap his team's chances of a repeat performance.
"There's no point in talking about that," he said. "[The players] get it. Little kids at 6 years old get you don't need to have a scoreboard because they're going to keep score in their heads.
"So our guys get what the goal is, but we don't focus on that. That's the wrong thing to focus on. The focus on is how to score touchdowns and field goals. We talk about what a joke it is to talk about that right now. That's the conversations we have. No point in it."
Maybe it's pointless for a coach or player to discuss publicly, but the obvious counterpoint is that for everyone else these types of conversations are fun. And that's really the only reason that's needed.
DALLAS -- Early last week, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield poked fun at his true-freshman counterpart at Texas, playfully noting that Sam Ehlinger had failed to defeat Mayfield’s Austin high school alma mater. In the aftermath of Saturday’s thrilling Red River Showdown, in which Ehlinger nearly rallied the Longhorns from a 20-point deficit, Mayfield had nothing but respect for the young quarterback.
Even saw a little of himself in Ehlinger, too.
“Tough kid,” Oklahoma’s senior quarterback said. “You could tell by the way he carried himself, how he bounces back after getting hit. Just how we Austin boys do it, I guess. He's going to have a heck of a career, it's obvious.”
Mayfield wound up winning the game with a 59-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
Ehlinger, however, won over both sides of the Cotton Bowl divide with a gritty effort that had the heavily favored Sooners sweating to the end of their 29-24 victory.
“Love the kid, love the way he competes,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He has it all. He’s a guy they can build their team around.
“The future is bright for him and Texas.”
From the moment they snagged his commitment two summers ago, the Longhorns had eagerly been waiting for the homegrown, former blue-chipper to step on campus. But really, Texas has been waiting for its newly minted quarterback of the future for much longer than that.
Ever since Heisman finalist and Big 12 champion Colt McCoy departed following the 2009 season after taking Texas to the national title game, the Longhorns have been cycling through starting quarterbacks faster than Franklin Barbecue does briskets, unable to find the answer at each turn. Not surprisingly, an unsuccessful quarterback quest dovetailed with Texas’ tumble from the pantheon of the college football into a middling program, reduced to hoping for mere bowl eligibility.
But with Ehlinger going toe-to-toe with Mayfield less than a month after doing the same with another Heisman-hopeful quarterback, USC’s Sam Darnold, the era of Texas moral victories could mercifully be coming to a close.
“He showed me all he needed to show me in Los Angeles,” said Texas coach Tom Herman, who indicated Saturday that Ehlinger would remain behind center even once Week 1 starter Shane Buechele makes a full recovery from an ankle injury. “Sam is a tough dude. He doesn't get rattled. He's competitive as all get out. He didn't need to show me anything in this game. I've seen everything I need to see from Sam Ehlinger.”
By Saturday evening, Oklahoma had seen enough of him, as well.
Once Mayfield propelled the Sooners to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, it looked as if they were well on their way to yet another Red River knockout. But that’s when Ehlinger got off the mat, and the Longhorns came back swinging.
He waited out another oncoming Oklahoma rush to deliver a beautifully executed screen pass to Kyle Porter, who coasted 16 yards for Texas’ first touchdown. Then just before halftime, Ehlinger connected on four completions to put the Longhorns in range for a 34-yard field goal.
Suddenly and improbably, Texas was back in the game.
“We just ran our offense,” said Ehlinger, who threw for 278 yards and ran for another 110. “We got comfortable and started doing what we do.”
Ehlinger got even more comfortable in the fourth quarter, no matter how many shots the Sooners got off on him.
On a third-and-10, he dropped a gorgeous, 22-yard pass into the arms of fellow freshman Reggie Hemphill-Mapps as he crashed into the Texas sideline.
The following play, Ehlinger rolled left, but with nothing there, he weaved back to his right. In the face of three leaping rushers, he jumped back and dumped a pass to another freshman, tight end Cade Brewer, for 21 yards.
Then, on the next snap, Ehlinger peeled around a trio of Sooners before gliding in for an 8-yard touchdown, briefly giving Texas a 24-23 lead with eight minutes to go.
“No offensive lineman could ever ask for anything more from that guy,” said Texas left guard Patrick Vahe. “He played his butt off.”
If Ehlinger could’ve played only five more snaps, who knows what the outcome might have been Saturday.
After Mayfield’s go-ahead touchdown throw, Texas got the ball with plenty of time to retake the lead. But as Ehlinger was driving the Longhorns down the field again, his head slammed into the turf. For the next five plays, Buechele replaced Ehlinger as trainers gave the freshman a precautionary concussion test.
When Ehlinger returned, Texas faced second-and-22. Eventually, the drive, and effectively the game, ended at fourth-and-13.
“Been dreaming about [this game] for a long time,” said Ehlinger, a lifelong Texas fan. “The atmosphere was incredible. Losing the game was not incredible. But I'm looking forward to the next three years.”
Texas fans have been dreaming of a quarterback like Ehlinger for a long time, too. And after Saturday, dreaming of what’s to come.
Well, we know who the best two teams in the SEC are. As for everything else ... it's anybody's guess. Here's our best shot at the pecking order through seven weeks of action:
1. Alabama (7-0): During a week in which many of the top 10 were upset, Alabama did more than take care of business by dominating Arkansas 41-9 at home.
2. Georgia (7-0): It was a flawless performance, especially early on defense, but the Bulldogs responded well in the second half to win big 53-28 at home against Missouri.
3. Auburn (5-2): All that positive momentum after Clemson? Yeah, that's gone when you blow a 20-0 lead on the road at LSU.
4. Texas A&M (5-2): The wins might not be pretty, but the Aggies keep collecting them. The latest was a 19-17 victory at Florida. Kevin Sumlin's team is trending up.
5. LSU (5-2): The Tigers are back from the dead. Two consecutive SEC wins, the latest a 27-23 comeback win over Auburn, have the Tigers' confidence up.
6. South Carolina (5-2): Say what you want about Tennessee, but an SEC road win is an SEC road win, no matter how ugly. The Gamecocks' 15-9 victory over the Vols has them at 5-2.
7. Florida (3-3): Not even swampy green uniforms could save the Gators' struggling offense as it failed to put away Texas A&M at home.
8. Kentucky (5-1): The Wildcats were idle this week and return in Week 8 with a key road game at Mississippi State.
10. Ole Miss (3-3): It would have been easy to fold after blowout losses to Alabama and Auburn, but Ole Miss didn't, bouncing back to beat Vanderbilt 57-35 at home.
11. Vanderbilt (3-4): The Commodores can't seem to stop the bleeding. After a 3-0 start, they've allowed 199 points in four straight losses. They have a week off coming up to try to figure things out.
12. Arkansas (2-4): The Razorbacks fell to Alabama 41-9 and remain winless in SEC play (0-3). They've allowed 139 points in those three SEC losses.
13. Tennessee (3-3): Butch Jones is looking more and more like a lame-duck coach after following an embarrassing 41-0 loss at home to Georgia by losing a 15-9 stinker to South Carolina.
14. Missouri (1-5): The Tigers made their game against Georgia interesting for the better part of a half, keeping pace with the Bulldogs, but the defense simply couldn't hold up much beyond that in a 53-28 loss. Mizzou allowed 407 yards in the first half and 370 rushing yards in the game.
Our Big 12 Week 7 power rankings:
1. TCU (previous ranking: 1): The Horned Frogs cruised through two weather delays and a desperate team in Kansas State to a convincing 26-6 victory in Manhattan. At 3-0 in conference play, TCU now sits all alone atop the Big 12 standings. And after a weekend of upsets elsewhere, they're on the inside of the College Football Playoff conversation.
2. Oklahoma (2): The Sooners blew another big lead. And once again, the offense disappeared for much of the second half. But Oklahoma came up with the plays it needed down the stretch to hold off Texas, 29-24. Style points have always been overrated in the Red River Showdown, anyway.
3. Oklahoma State (3): Oklahoma State's defining three-game stretch has arrived. At Texas. At West Virginia. And then the Bedlam biggie. At the end of it, the Cowboys will either be well on their way to the Big 12 title game or firmly out of it.
4. West Virginia (5): After a hard-fought loss at TCU, West Virginia's season was about to turn for the worse, trailing Texas Tech 35-17 in the second half. Then Will Grier and David Sills took over, and West Virginia's defense came up with three consecutive three-and-outs, fueling a 46-35 come-from-behind win. As a result, the Mountaineers remain on the fringe of the Big 12 title-game picture.
5. Texas Longhorns (4): Through losses to Oklahoma and USC, the Longhorns appear to have uncovered what they've long been searching for the last eight years -- a viable replacement for Colt McCoy. After going toe-to-toe with Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, Sam Ehlinger has the look of Texas' QB of the future.
6. Texas Tech (6): When they left Morgantown, the Red Raiders had to be kicking themselves for the opportunity they let escape from them. Even though they fell apart late, the Red Raiders have demonstrated they have a quality team. They just can't allow what happened at West Virginia to cause a spiral.
7. Iowa State (7): The Joel Lanning/Kyle Kempt show delivered another win, this time a 45-0 rout of Kansas. The Cyclones are just two wins from their preseason goal of reaching bowl eligibility. What's even more remarkable is that Iowa State is not all that far away from being 6-0 right now. What a season it's been for Matt Campbell and his bunch.
8. Kansas State (8): This season is quickly turning into a disaster for the Wildcats, who simply don't have enough offense, no matter who is behind center. Bill Snyder teams almost always have exceeded preseason expectations. Without a dramatic reversal, this one seems destined to fall well below them.
9. Baylor (9): The Bears had been hanging tough in Big 12 play. Oklahoma State just had too much firepower in its 59-16 win. The one silver lining out of Stillwater is that Terence Williams looked liked his old self despite an ailing shoulder, rushing for 95 yards after spending the first half of the season either injured or in Matt Rhule's doghouse.
10. Kansas Jayhawks (10): The Jayhawks were completely outclassed by Iowa State, underscoring just how dramatic the gap between Kansas and the rest of the Big 12 still is.
A crazy week in college football at large did more to confirm our suspicions in the Big Ten than cause any major shakeups. Four teams in the AP's Top 10 fell over the weekend, but all five of the league’s ranked teams were victorious and will likely slide up the polls because of it.
A couple -- looking at you, Mitten State -- made things interesting in the fourth quarter. Others, such as Ohio State and Wisconsin, played to their strengths and in the process strengthened their postseason outlook. Penn State returns to action this week as our top five starts to really get tested. After seven weeks of football, the pace is just about to pick up. Here’s how the Big Ten stacks up heading into the second half of the year.
1. Penn State (Last week: 1): James Franklin said the bye week came at a good time to give his team a little extra rest ahead of the East Division gauntlet ahead of them. The Nittany Lions host Michigan before traveling to Ohio State and Michigan State in consecutive weeks. If Penn State holds up during that stretch, its playoff claims will be as strong as any program in the country. But that’s a big “if.”
2. Ohio State (3): The College Football Playoff committee rewards good performances more than it dings teams for losses, so we’ll do the same this week. The Buckeyes offense has apparently found the groove it was looking for in September. J.T. Barrett completed 81.8 percent of his passes and contributed seven touchdowns in a dismantling of Nebraska. Barrett & Co. still have to prove they can excel against good teams. That chance will come after the bye week.
3. Wisconsin (2): The Badgers’ drop to third is due to a boring schedule, but frankly it doesn’t really matter where they sit. Wisconsin, thanks to the legs of freshman Jonathan Taylor, is running away with the West. It would take a major letdown for Paul Chryst & Co. not to end up in Indianapolis in December with a chance to prove they deserve to be at the top of this list.
4. Michigan State (4): This week was running back L.J. Scott’s chance to shine in a win at Minnesota. The Spartans’ rush defense has remained consistently impressive during their climb to 5-1. Quarterback Brian Lewerke said Saturday night that the team should be 6-0, but gave away a game to Notre Dame. It’s fair to say they’ve got their confidence back.
5. Michigan (5): It’s time to stop accusing Michigan of underperforming and realize that this is who the 2017 Wolverines are. The blowout wins of a year ago are going to be hard to find. Without a potent offense to match a top-notch defense, Michigan will have to battle its way to close wins like it did in overtime at Indiana. Luckily for Jim Harbaugh, his young team showed a willingness to fight through those battles along with all their mistakes in Bloomington.
6. Purdue (6): The Boilermakers offense didn’t have enough steam to reach the end zone against Wisconsin. Jeff Brohm said he thought his team “hung in there” against the West Division’s best, which is as much as any other opponent has done this year. With Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois in the near future, Brohm’s team could be bowl eligible by early November.
7. Iowa (7): The Hawkeyes stay put during a week of rest. An injured offensive line for the Hawkeyes needed a break in order to gear up for a challenging second half of the year.
8. Indiana (8): We won’t dock the Hoosiers for leaving yet another opportunity to take down a high-profile opponent just out of reach. A 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter showed Indiana still have the ability to push the pace on offense this year. They’ll need to win one of those close games to climb into the upper half of our rankings.
9. Northwestern (11): The Wildcats beat last week’s No. 9 team, Maryland, and snagged their higher spot in the rankings. Justin Jackson broke loose for 171 rushing yards after struggling to find holes behind a subpar offensive line for much of the year. Consistency remains the biggest question mark for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.
10. Minnesota (10): The Gophers have lost three straight winnable games. Home-field advantage wasn’t quite enough to complete a comeback effort against surging Michigan State. This team might take a step backward in 2017 under P.J. Fleck before it’s able to start moving forward.
11. Maryland (9): The Terps continued their drop in the rankings this week as they struggle with a hard-to-believe stretch of quarterback injuries. This team, which climbed as high as No. 5 in our poll a month ago, isn't equipped at the moment to win shootout games, giving up 30-plus points like it did this Saturday against Northwestern.
12. Nebraska (12): The Cornhuskers were embarrassed on their home field by Ohio State again. It was the second straight visit from the Buckeyes in which Nebraska didn’t force a single punt. Neither side of the ball is up to standards in Lincoln, and it’s fair to start wondering how much longer Mike Riley will be sticking around.
13. Rutgers (13): The Scarlet Knights won the battle of the basement and confirmed our feelings that they were a step ahead of the Illini this weekend. Congratulations to Chris Ash on his first Big Ten victory. (The first for Rutgers in its past 17 conference games.) Enjoy it while you can.
14. Illinois (14): The Illini have the worst rushing defense (197.2 yards per game) and the worst rushing offense (118.3 yards per game) in the Big Ten. That’s a recipe for disaster in this league, and unless at least one of things drastically improves, Illinois may not win another game this year.
Last week, it appeared Washington and Washington State were on a collision course for one of the most anticipated Apple Cups of all time -- one in which perhaps a berth in the College Football Playoff could be on the line. This week, they combined for 10 total points in losses to Cal (WSU, 37-3) and Arizona State (UW, 13-7). Those shocking results made compiling this week’s Pac-12 power rankings an exercise in futility.
Aside from Oregon State at No. 12 and Colorado at No. 11, there is plenty of room for debate at just about every spot. Even the most logical combinations will be filled with obvious flaws -- and that’s what makes this conference so much fun.
1. USC (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12): The Trojans have one of the best wins (42-24 over Stanford) and one of the most acceptable losses (30-27 at Washington State). They’re the team best positioned to make the playoff considering their strong nonconference schedule, but USC now must travel to play a hot Notre Dame team that is coming off a bye.
2. Stanford (5-2, 4-1): Winners of four straight, Stanford looks like it is rounding into form thanks largely to running back Bryce Love. At this point, he’s without question the player of the year in the conference with 1,387 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
3. Washington (6-1, 3-1): Tempe has been a house of horrors over the years for the Huskies, and that continued Saturday. The Huskies hadn’t played a close game all season, and when they finally found themselves in one, they didn’t appear comfortable.
4. Washington State (6-1, 3-1): Playing back-to-back road games with the second one on a short week should not be allowed. The Cougs benefited from that scenario earlier this season against USC (still the best win for any team in the Pac-12) and were hurt by it against Cal on Friday. Just about everything that could have gone wrong against the Bears did go wrong.
5. Utah (4-2, 1-2): The Utes were a two-point conversion away from beating USC on the road with their backup quarterback and hung tight with Stanford the week before. Utah hosts Arizona State next week, which should help provide some clarity to this section of the rankings.
6. Arizona State (3-3, 2-1): It was a masterful defensive performance to hold Washington to seven points, and the Sun Devils’ three losses all came against teams that entered the week in the AP Top 25 (San Diego State, Texas Tech and Stanford).
7. California (4-3, 1-3): If these rankings were based on this week alone, Cal would be the clear No. 1. The Bears were dominant in every aspect of their game against Wazzu, but we can’t forget they dropped their first three conference games by 10, 21 and 31 points.
8. Arizona (4-2, 2-1): Quarterback Khalil Tate has made Arizona a lot of fun to watch the past two weeks, but the Wildcats' Pac-12 wins (Colorado, UCLA) have both come against teams in the bottom third of the conference.
9. Oregon (4-3, 1-3): On the one hand, the Ducks beat Cal by 21 and have the same record. On the other, Oregon has been outscored 82-17 the past two weeks.
10. UCLA (3-3, 1-2): The Bruins are allowing 40.5 points per game -- only five FBS teams are allowing more. Quarterback Josh Rosen has generally been very good, but if he struggles -- like he did against Arizona (20-of-34, 219 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT) -- the Bruins are going to have a tough time winning.
11. Colorado (4-3, 1-3): Colorado avoided disaster by pulling out a 36-33 win against Oregon State.
12. Oregon State (1-6, 0-4): In the same week in which coach Gary Andersen walked away from the program and the $12 million-plus he was entitled to under his contract through the 2021 season, the Beavers played their best game of the year. It was a loss, but the players showed they still care.
1. Clemson Tigers (6-1, 4-1). Clemson was outcoached and outplayed in an upset loss to Syracuse, but the Tigers remain the best team in the league. For now.
2. Miami Hurricanes (5-0, 3-0). Miami needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win two weeks in a row. Take a bow, as the only undefeated ACC team left.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies (5-1, 1-1). The Hokies got to rest up on a bye before hosting North Carolina.
4. NC State Wolfpack (6-1, 4-0). The Wolfpack are off to their best start since 2002 and are the only team that controls their destiny in the ACC Atlantic.
5a. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (3-2, 2-1). You have to feel for the Jackets -- both of their losses were by one point.
5b Lamar Jackson. We have made an exception this week to note Lamar Jackson's super human performance on a team that has done little to help. Jackson had 512 yards and five touchdowns against Boston College ... and lost.
6.Florida State Seminoles (2-3, 2-2). The Seminoles aren't lighting up the scoreboard, but they still have never lost to Duke.
7. Virginia Cavaliers (5-1, 2-0). Virginia held on to beat North Carolina and is now one win away from bowl eligibility, a year after going 2-10.
8. Syracuse Orange (4-3, 2-1). Dino Babers put together a coaching masterpiece in the Orange's upset win over Clemson, ranked among the biggest in school history.
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (4-2, 1-2). Wake Forest had a bye week to prepare for a tough challenge against Georgia Tech.
10. Duke Blue Devils (4-3, 1-3). Duke has lost three straight after starting 4-0 as its passing game has stalled.
13. Louisville Cardinals (4-3, 1-3). The Cards have far too much talent to underachieve this much.
14. North Carolina Tar Heels (1-6, 0-4). The Tar Heels are 0-4 in the ACC for the first time since 2006.
DALLAS -- On the final snap that really mattered in the 112th Red River Showdown, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo chased Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger every which way before forcing him to surrender on fourth down with a pass into the sideline. At the other end of the play, Sooners safety Steven Parker ran back and forth, making sure no Longhorns receiver broke free in the end zone. At the end of the tiring sequence, after which less than two minutes remained in Saturday's fourth quarter, Okoronkwo had nothing left to give, and was flat on his back before being gingerly pulled up by trainers and teammate Caleb Kelly. Parker had nothing left, either, after reaggravating his injured ankle; he had to be helped off the field, as well.
After being gashed, then condemned in the wake of last week's stunning loss to Iowa State, Oklahoma's beleaguered defense delivered a valiant effort Saturday in the Cotton Bowl, getting the winning stop it needed as the No. 12 Sooners held off Ehlinger while holding on for a 29-24 victory loaded with fourth-quarter theater.
Oklahoma's effort was hardly a work of art. After falling behind 20-0, Ehlinger had the Sooners (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) on their heels for much of the second half before his 8-yard carry gave Texas a stunning 24-23 lead.
But on a weekend in which Clemson, Washington State and Auburn went down, the Sooners escaped Dallas with their Big 12 title and College Football Playoff hopes intact.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield was the story for the Sooners early as he torched Texas for 179 yards through the air in the first quarter alone. But with the Oklahoma offense cooling off in the second half for the second consecutive week, the Sooners had to beat Texas with one big Mayfield touchdown. And with the key defensive stop that eluded them last week.
After the Longhorns (3-3, 2-1) took the late lead, Mayfield answered with a 59-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route to tight end Mark Andrews, who went uncovered against a busted Texas coverage.
Texas, however, wouldn't go away. Neither would Ehlinger.
After leaving the game for five plays following a shot he took from Okoronkwo near the sidelines, Ehlinger returned on 2nd-and-22 from the Oklahoma 43-yard line. But after a 9-yard Ehlinger run, the Sooners forced an incompletion.
Then they forced Ehlinger into another, which ultimately decided the game.
And left Oklahoma defenders exhausted but victorious on the turf.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Don't stick a fork in LSU, or Ed Orgeron for that matter, just yet.
A lot of people did after an embarrassing homecoming loss to Troy on Sept. 30, but LSU has come roaring back the past two weeks and rallied from a 20-point deficit Saturday to stun No. 10 Auburn 27-23 at Tiger Stadium.
And the irony of all ironies was that former LSU coach Les Miles was in the house and received the loudest ovation of the day until the Tigers made their charge in the second half. Miles and the 2007 national championship team were honored at halftime -- with LSU trailing 23-14. From that point, it was a different game -- and a different LSU team.
The 20-point comeback win -- Auburn bolted out to a 20-0 lead with 12:50 left in the first half -- was the largest by LSU (5-2, 2-1 SEC) against an SEC opponent in Tiger Stadium since 1949. When it was over, with the LSU sideline going wild, Orgeron pointed both fingers to the sky. The upset win over Auburn came on the heels of winning at Florida last week 17-16.
Auburn, until its final two offensive possessions, managed just 55 total yards in the second half, as LSU's defense turned up the heat and played one of its best halves of the season.
LSU's Connor Culp booted a pair of field goals late in the game, the big one a 42-yarder with 2:36 to play to give LSU its first lead, 24-23. Culp added a 36-yarder minutes later.
LSU was manhandled in the line of scrimmage early in the game but made life miserable for Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the second half. Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) became predictable on offense, running the ball on first down and then chucking the ball down the field on third down. It was reminiscent of what Auburn looked like offensively in its only other loss of the season, a 14-6 setback to Clemson the second week of the season.