College football's zany October leaves questions around every College Football Playoff contender
In the sage words of Urban Meyer, who had this to ask moments after his Ohio State Buckeyes pulled a rabbit out of the helmet against Penn State...
“What the heck just happened?"
Yet another wacko weekend is what happened, especially Ohio State’s epic 39-38 comeback over the Nittany Lions that required quarterback J.T. Barrett to throw 13 passes in the fourth quarter and complete them all.
What a perfect set-up it was for November. That’s a month that provides answers in college football. Only, after all this, what are the questions? Here are 11.
1: Will Barrett be the unstoppable candidate in the race for a certain trophy?
“I think the H word is appropriate after today’s game,” Meyer said, and no wonder. Penn State arrived in Columbus with the nation’s top scoring defense, put up 38 points, and still lost.
That was compliments of the Buckeyes’ quarterback, who hit 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for 95 more. Yeah, that sounds like a Heisman statement. Barrett’s campaign slogan? It might as well be: “Tell the critics to shut up.”
When he struggled in the Oklahoma loss, some actually suggested it was time for Meyer to look at another quarterback, with more downfield passing skills. Yeah, right. In the six games since, Barrett has a 74.9 completion percentage, with a touchdown-interception ratio of 22-0.
Next bright idea?
Said Meyer, “I don’t know if I’ve ever had more respect for a human being and as a person ... you witness people in very dire straits at times, tough situations . . . we’re in college football, where it’s either yes or no in those situations, and he was a big yes tonight.”
Penn State vs. Ohio State: Buckeyes rally from 15 down to knock off No. 2 Nittany Lions
Barrett’s reaction to all these sudden accolades is more or less an aw, shucks.
“He said the H word. I’m going to say the same thing, that H word. I don’t really focus on it. Next week, we’ve got to go beat Iowa,” he said. “I tell you all the time, I’m just a little cat from Wichita Falls, Texas. People don’t even know where it is on the map. I’m grateful for the position God has put me in.”
2: Is that thunder we hear being shaken down in South Bend? In other words, can Notre Dame run the table?
Averaging 318 yards rushing a game, the Irish are like a cement truck rolling downhill, with Josh Adams building his own Heisman case with more than a thousand yards on the ground. When they lost by one point to Georgia, discussion about that old Notre Dame malady of dropping close games – seven one-possession defeats in 2016 – led to a few tense moments between Brian Kelly and a reporter.
Simple solution. Don’t play close games. Since Georgia, the Irish have won six consecutive games by 20-plus points for the first time since 1961, and just waxed top-15 opponents by 20-plus on consecutive weekends for the first time since 1944.
Trips to Miami and Stanford might require Notre Dame finally prove it can escape a tight squeeze. And in between those two is an ultimate trap game with Navy.
“If we win by five touchdowns every game, I’d be fine with that,” Kelly said. “It seems sometimes unreasonable to think in those terms, but I wouldn’t short this group anything. They have a mindset about how they want to play the game.
“But they have all the other skills necessary to deal with whatever happens during a game. They didn’t flinch, I don’t expect them to flinch when they get into tight games as well.”
3: Iowa State at the top of the Big 12? Really?
A month ago, the Cyclones were 1-54-2 all-time against top-5 opponents. They just beat two of them – Oklahoma and TCU – in four weeks. They were picked to finish ninth in the league. At the moment, they’re in a four-way tie for first. They’d never been 4-1 in conference play, ever. And now they are.
They’ve allowed only 27 points in the past 14 quarters, but the next two weeks will tell a lot; a trip to West Virginia and Oklahoma State at home.
“All you want to do is get your team to November and have them playing for something,” coach Matt Campbell said. “And we’re finally there. We made it.”
4: Is Miami elite, or not?
The 7-0 Hurricanes are one of five unbeaten teams standing, but they have won their last four games by 4, 1, 8 and 5 points – against opponents with a combined record of 11-20. “I’ve done it too long to apologize for winning,” coach Mark Richt said.
Perfectly sound answer, but the Hurricanes have a chance the next two weeks for wins that would need no apology, no matter the margin. Home games with Virginia Tech, then Notre Dame, with obvious echoes of the rivalry’s past.
5: That question about Miami? Just insert the word Wisconsin.
The 8-0 Badgers have beaten nobody ranked and only two teams currently with winning records – Florida Atlantic and Northwestern. But they do lead the country in red zone defense, allowing only seven touchdowns in 25 trips.
Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and rival Minnesota are all capable of causing trouble, but Wisconsin’s moment of truth might come in the Big Ten championship game, probably against Ohio State.
6: Is defending national champion Clemson still in the playoff chase?
Check back after the trip to North Carolina State trip this week. If the Tigers win there, and go on to take the ACC championship, they’ll be making an argument. But if hair-splitting has to be done among a gaggle of one-loss teams, the defeat at Syracuse will not be particularly attractive.
“We’re right where we wanted to be coming into this season,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “It’s November and we’re moving into the next phase of our journey. If we want something, we’re going to have to go get it.”
The next phase? Keep winning, and hope other one-loss teams lose.
7: Can Arizona do something it hasn't done in 24 years -- win a conference?
Rich Rodriguez wanted to do that at Michigan and missed by a couple of light years. But with one of the nation’s most electric newcomers, his 6-2 Wildcats have made on a move on the top of the Pac-12 South.
In four games since moving into the lineup, sophomore quarterback Kahlil Tate has produced 1,589 yards of running and passing, and 14 touchdowns. He had a run of at least 70 yards in all four games, and is averaging 14.2 yards a carry.
If only the schedule were friendlier from here. Waiting to rain on this Tate fireworks show are USC, Oregon and rival Arizona State – all road games for Arizona.
8: If Alabama and Georgia are both unbeaten, will they be playing the SEC Championship game just to kill a Saturday evening?
Maybe. The Tide lead the nation in scoring, rushing and total defense, and have scored 43 touchdowns while giving up nine. Georgia’s four SEC wins have come by an average of 32 points. It’d be hard to keep either out of the playoffs, if the only loss is to the other.
Auburn is in a prime party-pooper spot, getting both Georgia and Alabama at home. It’s going to be a loud November on the Plains. The Tide also still have old pal LSU, and a tricky trip to Mississippi State.
9: What should we call the game on Nov. 25 when Florida State goes to Florida?
How about, Les Miserables? Bad and badder? A Tale of Two Pities? The two former juggernauts are a combined 5-9 and lost over the weekend by a total score of 77-10. Jim McElwain and the Gators parted ways Sunday, and Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher has had a shouting match with a fan. Lots of clouds in the Sunshine State.
10: But not in Orlando. Will the world notice UCF?
The 7-0 Knights lead the nation at 51 points a game, or just 16 points under what their basketball team averaged last season. In 2016, they were 66th in scoring. They’ve given up 138 points the entire schedule – and scored 133 in the second quarter alone. Their turnover margin is 17-5 to the good, and quarterback McKenzie Milton is completing 73 percent of his passes.
7-0 73 points— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) October 29, 2017
Do they have your attention yet? The trip at 6-2 SMU Saturday will be telling, and at the end is the I-4 tussle with 7-1 South Florida.
11: When November is done with its answers, what questions will it leave for December?
Could be some juicy ones.
For instance. Could three of the power-5 conferences be shut out of the playoffs? You can certainly imagine a foursome of Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame and Ohio State. Sorry ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
Then again, if Ohio State and Oklahoma each have one loss, how could the Buckeyes go over the Sooners, who bounced them soundly in Columbus? No matter how many touchdowns J.T. Barrett is producing?
Ah, but all that’s for later. Here’s November, and to borrow the words of the man at Ohio State, we don’t know what the heck might happen.
Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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