Is Penn State really one of the 10 best teams in the country?
All eyes are on the Nittany Lions, who host “College GameDay” this weekend and will have their signature “white out” on Saturday night in a prime-time game against Michigan.
This is Penn State’s chance to prove it’s one of the Big Ten’s elite programs. After holding off Iowa, 17-12, last weekend in a strange game that featured more than its fair share of head-scratching penalties and replay decisions, the Nittany Lions are 6-0 and ranked No. 7. Now we get to see if they’re worthy of that distinction.
Penn State is one of just two teams in the nation (Ohio State is the other) with a top-10 scoring offense and scoring defense. But their schedule has been soft, and the Nittany Lions haven’t handled big games well in recent years. The victory over the Hawkeyes was James Franklin’s first against a Top 25 team on the road in seven tries during his Penn State tenure.
If there’s one reason to criticize Franklin for the job he’s done in Happy Valley, in which he’s turned the Nittany Lions into a perennial conference contender, it’s his record against the league’s best teams. Entering the Michigan game, Franklin is a combined 3-12 against Big Ten East rivals Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. He’s 1-3 against Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, having been outscored 119-23 in those three losses.
This year’s Penn State team certainly has all the makings of a Big Ten contender and possible playoff entrant (ESPN’s Playoff Predictor gives the Nittany Lions the seventh-best chance to reach the final four, at 18%). But the offense has sputtered at times under first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford, and the defense has been asked to carry an increased load because of it. Luckily for Penn State, this might be Harbaugh’s worst team at Michigan, seemingly incapable of consistently scoring points and prone to lapses on defense (i.e., allowing 25 straight points to Illinois in last week’s win).
Both of these teams believe they can contend for a conference championship. We’ll see Saturday night which one is actually ready to do so.
Who’s going to emerge in the Pac-12 title race?
The other two ranked matchups this weekend are courtesy of the Pac-12. No. 25 Washington hosts No. 12 Oregon, and No. 17 Arizona State travels to No. 13 Utah.
The winners of these matchups will take control of their respective divisions and likely face each other in the Pac-12 championship game. But given how unpredictable the league has been — with every team seemingly capable of beating one another — that’s a lot to assume.
Here’s how I would rank the four teams’ chances of winning the conference title:
1. Oregon (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12): The Ducks have been by far the league’s best team since their season-opening loss to Auburn, winning five straight and allowing just one touchdown during that span while averaging close to 40 points per game. Andy Avalos has been a revelation at defensive coordinator after coming over from Boise State and could get head coaching looks because of the job he’s done in his first year with the Ducks.
2. Utah (5-1, 2-1): The Utes had a legitimate shot at a playoff berth before losing to USC. While that dream has likely died, there’s still hope for the program’s first Rose Bowl berth. Star running back Zack Moss is back from a shoulder injury, and he’s just 55 yards away from breaking the school’s all-time rushing record. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has yet to throw an interception, and the Utes defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in its five wins.
3. Arizona State (5-1, 2-1): Herm Edwards was on the receiving end of many jokes when the Sun Devils announced their NFL-style leadership model at the end of the 2017 season. All he’s done is gone 12-7, with four ranked wins under his belt. Freshman Jayden Daniels is one of the best young quarterbacks in the country, and running back Eno Benjamin and receiver Brandon Aiyuk are highly skilled playmakers. There’s plenty of talent in Tempe, and Edwards is starting to put it all together.
4. Washington (5-2, 2-2): The Huskies have been the poster child for the Pac-12’s unpredictable nature. Sometimes, they look unstoppable, as they did in wins over Hawaii, BYU, USC and Arizona. Other times, they can’t get out of their own way, failing to score more than 20 points in losses to California and Stanford. Quarterback Jacob Eason has drawn NFL attention for his 6-foot-6, 227-pound frame and big arm, and he often looks the part of someone who could start on Sundays. But he’s underperformed in conference play, throwing just three touchdown passes and two interceptions in four games. Chris Petersen is among the nation’s best coaches, and he’ll have to do some of his best work yet to get this team into the Pac-12 title game.
Some smaller questions worth asking
Can Boise State stay on track for an NY6 bid? The No. 14 Broncos are in the driver’s seat to represent the Group of 5 in the Cotton Bowl, but they’ll likely need to go undefeated to make it to Dallas. Their trip to Provo to face BYU is rather poorly timed, given that starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier was injured during last week’s win over Hawaii and didn’t return. Sophomore Chase Cord played phenomenally in his absence, completing 12 of 18 passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns. But the friendly confines of the blue turf in Boise is a much different environment for a young quarterback than the hostile crowd at BYU. Whether it’s Bachmeier or Cord playing Saturday night, this will be one of the Broncos’ biggest challenges.
Will Muschamp can’t do it again, right? A week after taking down No. 3 Georgia in Athens, South Carolina hosts a No. 9 Florida team still recovering from an emotional loss at LSU. Muschamp, the former Gators coach, hasn’t been able to win more than nine games since arriving in 2016, and it’s unlikely the Gamecocks will be able to exceed that mark this year. But last Saturday’s upset built a lot of goodwill, and another win over a top 10 team would be another step toward changing the culture in Columbia.
Is Temple-SMU an AAC title game preview? The American Athletic Conference title race is among the most fascinating in college football, with seven teams in the hunt. Outside of a head-scratching loss to Buffalo, Temple has quietly been one of the conference’s best teams, and gets a chance to prove it when it faces undefeated No. 19 SMU on Saturday. The Mustangs have a 16.1% chance to win the AAC, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, and this is a game they need to win if they want to get to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Does anyone want to win the ACC Coastal? Duke and Virginia are tied atop the Coastal standings, and they face each other Saturday in Charlottesville. With the exception of 1-5 Georgia Tech, every Coastal team has a shot at the division title — and to be a sacrificial lamb to Clemson in the ACC title game. But the possibility of a seven-way tie, with each team at 4-4 in conference play, exists. You love to see it.
Will Baylor’s run finally end? The No. 18 Bears (6-0) are slight underdogs at Oklahoma State, which means their winning streak might finally come to an end. But Matt Rhule’s team has been resilient, rallying to beat both Iowa State and Texas Tech. The Cowboys have two of the best playmakers in the country in running back Chuba Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher, and wide receiver Tylan Wallace, the nation’s fourth-leading receiver. Baylor might have to rely on its defense to escape Stillwater with a win.
How will Georgia respond to last week’s gut-punch? I wrote Monday that the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes were all but vanquished with Saturday’s loss to South Carolina, given the uphill battle ahead. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of the SEC title race. There’s little chance of Kentucky going into Athens and handing Georgia a second straight stunning loss, but it will be interesting to see how quarterback Jake Fromm bounces back from the worst game of his career, and whether the Bulldogs make any changes on offense to create some of the explosive plays they’ve been sorely lacking.
Is Louisville’s rebuild ahead of schedule? The Cardinals have needed to play three quarterbacks, and somehow they’ve combined for 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions. Jawon Pass is out for the year, and it’s unclear whether Micale Cunningham or Evan Conley will start against No. 3 Clemson on Saturday. Former Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield has taken the rubble left behind by Bobby Petrino’s ugly exit and built a competitive team. Louisville might not be able to hang with the Tigers, but a surprising 4-2 start is reason for excitement.
Was that upset loss just a blip for Jason Candle and Toledo? In case you missed it, the Rockets lost to Bowling Green, one of the worst teams in FBS, as a 25-point favorite. Candle has been a rising star in the Mid-American Conference since taking over in 2016, turning Toledo into a consistent winner. He’ll be a candidate for several open jobs this offseason, but his shine might fade if the Rockets (4-2) disappoint this season.