The home stretch of the college football season is here, and with it comes even higher stakes. Here’s what to watch this weekend, starting with a little playoff pressure in the Big Ten:
Is Michigan a playoff contender?
When the College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled this week, much of the talk centered around No. 6 Michigan being ranked above No. 7 Michigan State despite the Spartans’ 37-33 win over the Wolverines just two weeks ago. But it ultimately doesn’t matter if Michigan can’t find a way to win its final three games.
Saturday’s meeting with Penn State in Happy Valley begins a critical stretch for coach Jim Harbaugh, who has yet to reach the Big Ten championship game. The Wolverines have lost three of their past four meetings against the Nittany Lions and have just one win at Beaver Stadium since Harbaugh took over in 2015. Michigan is a slight favorite, but it will take a strong effort to beat a Penn State team that, while unranked at 6-3, has wins over Wisconsin and Auburn and fields one of the best defenses in the country.
If Michigan wins Saturday and beats Maryland the following week, the real test arrives. Harbaugh’s Wolverines are 0-5 against arch-rival Ohio State, and have been outscored by an average of nearly 20 points in those games. The Buckeyes looked wobbly after an early loss to Oregon, but have since turned back into one of the most dominant teams in the country. Saturday’s game against Penn State, which gave Ohio State all it could handle, will be a good litmus test for Michigan’s playoff aspirations.
Can anyone stop the Sooners?
Outside of a brief scare against Kansas, the last three games have been a cakewalk for No. 8 Oklahoma. That’s about to change.
Freshman quarterback Caleb Williams continues his Heisman Trophy campaign against No. 13 Baylor on Saturday in what could be his toughest test yet. The Bears have been solid in Year 2 under coach Dave Aranda, with the former LSU defensive coordinator building one of the best defenses in the country after a forgettable 2-7 debut season.
Oklahoma enters the home stretch in an interesting spot. The Sooners have put together a perfect record so far, but the playoff committee has ranked them below undefeated Cincinnati and five one-loss Power Five teams (Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State). Winning the Big 12 might not be much of an accomplishment this season, considering Baylor and Oklahoma State are the only other ranked conference foes. Fortunately for the Sooners, they’ll get the chance to beat those two, plus a resurgent Iowa State team that entered the season with top-10 expectations. It’s hard to see a scenario in which an undefeated Power Five champion is left out of the playoffs, but Oklahoma needs to win out to leave no doubt.
Is there any hope for Tennessee?
The Volunteers have the most challenging task in the country this week: trying to score against No. 1 Georgia.
You’ve probably seen the stats. Less than seven points allowed per game. More than three sacks per game. Five offensive touchdowns allowed all season. No matter how you slice it, this Georgia defense is one of the best of all-time. But will it continue against better offenses?
Tennessee should not be confused for a scoring machine, but the Vols rank 12th nationally in offensive SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer, has been outstanding of late, particularly throwing the deep ball. According to ESPN, Hooker ranks fifth in the nation on throws of 15-plus yards this season, including 480 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions on such passes over the past four games.
Tennessee will need to connect on a couple of those deep shots to have any chance. If the Dawgs fall behind early with Stetson Bennett at quarterback, will they have enough firepower to respond? There might be some nervous moments Saturday in Knoxville.
Can Purdue do it again?
The Boilermakers are, historically, the scariest underdog in the country. But they might have lost some of their mojo this week by being ranked in the Top 25.
Unranked Purdue teams have beaten a top-five opponent 17 times, a Football Bowl Subdivision record. But after a 40-29 upset of No. 3 Michigan State on Saturday, their second over a top-three opponent this season, the Boilermakers climbed to No. 19 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
One of those unranked upsets came against Ohio State in 2018, when Purdue trampled the No. 3 Buckeyes, 49-20. Ohio State has not lost a Big Ten conference game since, winning 24 straight between the tenures of coach Urban Meyer and Ryan Day.
There’s a slim chance the Buckeyes overlook their opponent Saturday, especially given what Purdue has done this season. But this Boilermakers team might be more talented than that 2018 outfit, with quarterback Aidan O’Connell blossoming into a prolific passer and wide receiver David Bell running roughshod over defenses. Ohio State has seemed to fix its early season defensive woes, but it’s not completely trustworthy yet. This a chance to make a statement.
Also keep an eye on…
No. 11 Texas A&M at No. 15 Ole Miss: Neither team has a clear path to the SEC title game in the rugged West, but the Aggies can get there by winning out and hoping for another Alabama loss. This might be the best defense Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral faces all season as he looks to build his stock as a potential high pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
No. 9 Notre Dame at Virginia: The Fighting Irish seemed to fade from the playoff conversation after a loss to Cincinnati, but they’ve won four straight since and have seemingly found their offensive identity behind quarterbacks Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner. If they can keep up with a high-powered Virginia offense led by quarterback Brennan Armstrong, it might be time to take their playoff aspirations a little more seriously.
No. 16 NC State and No. 12 Wake Forest: How will the Demon Deacons respond to their first loss? You can’t blame quarterback Sam Hartman and the offense for a 58-55 defeat to North Carolina in what was technically a nonconference game. Wake Forest just needs a few stops from its defense to stay on top of the Atlantic division and secure its first trip to the ACC championship game since 2006.
TCU at No. 10 Oklahoma State: The Horned Frogs seemed left for dead after parting ways with longtime coach Gary Patterson, only to turn around and upset Baylor last week. Do they have anything left in the tank to take down the heavily favored Cowboys?
Mississippi State at No. 17 Auburn: Bulldogs coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense going up against a good SEC defense is always an interesting matchup. Add in Auburn quarterback Bo Nix’s flair for the dramatic and we could see an entertaining back-and-forth game that comes down to the wire.
Washington State at No. 3 Oregon: Despite all the turmoil surrounding coach Nick Rolovich’s firing for not getting the COVID vaccine, the Cougars have won four of their past five, including a convincing win over Arizona State. The Ducks don’t have a lot of room for error if they want to stay in the playoff field, which puts all the pressure on their shoulders.
Syracuse at Louisville: Come for Lamar Jackson’s jersey retirement ceremony, stay for Syracuse running back Sean Tucker. The Calvert Hall graduate is second in the country in all-purpose yards and is generating some buzz as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy contender and a worthy successor to the Orange’s famed No. 44 jersey.
Maryland at No. 7 Michigan State: The Terps have just three chances left to pick up a sixth win and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2016. It’ll be tough sledding against the Spartans, but Michigan State’s gutting loss to Purdue last week might linger long enough for Maryland to hang around.
Minnesota at No. 20 Iowa: If you’re into the grind-it-out slogs between offensively challenged Big Ten West opponents, this is the game for you. Both teams have struggled of late, but the winner will still be in contention for the division title and a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
Miami at Florida State: This rivalry has been all Miami of late, with the Hurricanes winning the past four meetings. It looks like they’re headed for a fifth straight win, with freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke leading a second-half turnaround that coach Manny Diaz desperately needed.