Now that we’re into mid-October, the national title picture is actually coming into focus. Remarkably, Alabama is on the outside looking in following the school’s first loss to an unranked team since 2007. Scroll down to the preview of the Crimson Tide looking to rebound to see how many games that encompassed if you don’t already know the number.
Considering how many teams in the Big Ten are set to cannibalize one another, we may indeed finally get a Group of Five representatives in the college football playoff. A couple of huge matchups in the Big 12 are also a big deal this week, so let’s get right to the Saturday statement games.
UCF at Cincinnati, 12 p.m. ET
This looked like it would be the “Game of the Year” in the American, but fate had other ideas. While the Bearcats have done their part in coming into Saturday’s matchup undefeated with conquests of Notre Dame and Indiana in their back pocket, UCF limps into this showdown, quite literally. QB Dillon Gabriel is out with a broken clavicle suffered at Louisville on Sept. 17 that may have ended his season, while top RB Isaiah Bowser and No. 1 WR Jaylon Robinson are also sidelined.
UCF freshman QB Mikey Keene couldn’t rally the Knights in a 34-30 loss at Navy two weeks ago but did lead an 11-play, 64-yard game-winning TD drive that freshman RB Mark-Anthony Richards capped off from 1-yard out with 23 seconds to go to help survive ECU’s upset bid 20-16. The Knights’ roster depth is being tested and these games will prove invaluable in terms of gaining experience, but it’s hard to imagine them going out on the road and challenging an elite Bearcats defense or stopping an attack led by All-America candidates at QB in Desmond Ridder and RB in Jerome Ford.
Cincinnati won the last two meetings 36-33 and 27-24, beating much more experienced teams than the one they’ll face without an elite passer in Gabriel at the controls. Oddsmakers are praying that bettors take the 20-plus points considering the Knights haven’t been this large an underdog since a 2016 visit to Michigan in which they lost 51-14 as a 36-point ‘dog. Style points certainly count for the Bearcats, who routed Temple 52-3 last week and are looking to break into the top-four of the CFP rankings when all is said and done. Blowing out depleted UCF would aid that cause.
The Cowboys have completely transformed their approach this season, understanding that their defense is far ahead of their offense since QB Spencer Sanders continues to play more of a game manager role than playmaker after losing top receivers Tylan Wallace and Dylan Stoner. Instead of forcing action that isn’t going to be there, Oklahoma State has defeated Boise State, Kansas State and Baylor by holding those teams to 20 or fewer points, slowing the pace and riding a really sound defense.
Texas can’t call its defense sound, which makes this a contrast in styles. After giving up 40 points to Arkansas in its first loss of the season, the Longhorns beat Texas Tech at home 70-35, then outlasted TCU 32-27 in a game where Bijan Robinson took over on the ground to prevent his defense from being out on the field too long. Last week, the Longhorns had a substantial lead on Oklahoma in Dallas only to be caught from behind thanks to a pathetic tackling display. The Sooners pulled off a 55-48 win in what was the highest-scoring Red River rivalry game ever.
This one is in Austin, where first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian has yet to lose since arriving after a successful stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. He’ll need Robinson, QB Casey Thompson and a strong receiving corps to do damage against Oklahoma State’s sound defenses in order to knock the Cowboys from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Kentucky at Georgia, 3:30 p.m. ET
Another undefeated team will fall here since the heavily-favored Bulldogs welcome in a Kentucky squad that has knocked off Florida and LSU convincingly to set themselves up with an opportunity to stun the world. The ‘Cats are 4-0 in SEC play and have a great chance at entering the league title game without a loss if they somehow pull off an upset in Athens.
Oddsmakers have installed Georgia as a 22.5-point favorite and are offering as much as +1200 on the moneyline if you want to go crazy and back Kentucky to win outright. The ‘Dawgs are still riding with backup QB Stetson Bennett over injured USC transfer J.T. Daniels but have such a dominant, physical defense that most don’t see the visitors scoring 10 points in this one. That’s not hyperbole. Only South Carolina has managed to score more than that against Georgia this season, falling 40-13 on Sept. 18.
Auburn fell 34-10 last week at home, UAB scored seven points once the game was already decided, Clemson stunningly managed just three points in the season opener, and Arkansas and Vanderbilt found themselves shut out. The ‘Dawgs scored just 10 points against the Tigers in the Kickoff Classic in Charlotte but have since averaged 45.8 points over the past five games. A bye week awaits Georgia next prior to its annual showdown with Florida, so it should have its teeth sharpened for this upcoming matchup.
Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech, 3:30 p.m. ET
The top teams in the ACC Coastal Division square off looking to put themselves in the driver’s seat to reach the conference title game. For Virginia Tech, it’s an opportunity to recover quickly from a disappointing home loss to Notre Dame in which it squandered a 29-21 lead with under four minutes to play, losing in regulation on a 48-yard field goal with 17 seconds left. The Hokies raced out to a 10-0 edge but the game was essentially a back-and-forth affair that proved they can play with anyone but are also really vulnerable due to a lack of playmakers on offense.
Virginia Tech QB Braxton Burmeister failed to throw a TD pass and led the team in rushing with just 49 yards. Making matters worse, he suffered a right shoulder injury and was clearly in pain trying to finish things out. The Hokies also lost middle LB Dax Hollifield due to targeting on Notre Dame’s game-tying drive, which means he’ll miss the first half of this showdown against Pitt.
The Panthers should be well prepared coming out of a bye week and looked dominant in a 52-21 rout of a Georgia Tech team that had just gone toe-to-toe with Clemson. Although Pitt fell at home to Western Michigan 44-41, its 41-34 win at Tennessee is looking better and better since the Vols have improved to 4-2, suffering only a loss at Florida outside of the home setback against the Panthers.
QB Kenny Pickett threw for 304 yards and three scores in the first half of the win over the Yellow Jackets and has thrown 19 TD passes while being intercepted only once in completing over 70 percent of his passes. He ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency (194.7) and TD passes, so this is certainly a statement game as far as his Heisman chances are concerned. It’s important to get up early while Hollifield sits in addition to keeping the Lane Stadium crowd from getting overly involved, but this is a golden opportunity for the Panthers to be at their best coming off a bye with this visit to Blacksburg and a home date with Clemson on tap.
Alabama at Mississippi State, 7 p.m. ET
Alabama doesn’t have a lot of experience coming off losses, having suffered only 12 over the past decade. The last time the Crimson Tide has dropped consecutive games came in 2013, when they fell against Auburn in the “Kick Six” game before losing in a Sugar Bowl matchup with Oklahoma. The Tide had won 100 consecutive contests against unranked competition and was unbeaten since Nov. 30, 2019 but was beaten at the gun by a Seth Small field goal. ‘Bama had rallied from a 24-10 halftime deficit and outgained the Aggies 522-379 but lost the turnover battle and allowed a mediocre QB in Zack Calzada to carve them up for three touchdowns and 285 passing yards.
Bryce Young passed for 369 yards and receiver Jameson Williams finished with 10 catches and a pair of second-half TD grabs, while Brian Robinson Jr. ran for 147 yards, so it’s hard to say the Tide offense was the problem even though they managed just one yard on three plays on their final drive. Alabama’s defense coughed up a late 38-31 and also let A&M go 54 yards in eight plays to set up Small’s heroics. Mike Leach’s first Mississippi State squad lost 41-0 in Tuscaloosa, but has a better grasp of his system as they attempt to pull off a stunner in Starkville coming in fresh off a bye week. The Bulldogs defeated the Aggies 26-22 in front of nearly 90,000 fans at Kyle Field thanks to a 408-yard passing game from QB Will Rogers.
Alabama isn’t going to need to worry about stopping the run much against the Air Raid but must bounce back from an ugly effort against Calzada, who unexpectedly became the first QB to have sustained success against its defense. Considering the Tide have run up against Miami’s D’Eriq King, Florida’s Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson, and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, we’ll write off their forgettable performance to a rough night. However, Rogers is more than capable of putting up a big number if the Tide fails to apply pressure and the Air Raid finds a rhythm.
Iowa State at Kansas State, 7:30 p.m. ET
K-State QB Skylar Thompson returned from a knee injury that at one point looked like it might end his college career and showed off improved pocket-passing skills in a strong effort against Oklahoma prior to last week’s bye. Thompson completed 29 of 41 passes for 320 yards and three scores but looked to run much less than he typically does.
While stud RB Deuce Vaughn is perfectly capable of serving as the driving force to the ground game, it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats’ offense evolves over the season’s second half of the team alters their play calling to ensure Thompson can stay healthy. Backup Jaren Lewis really struggled in filling in for Thompson in a loss at Oklahoma State, so the ‘Cats know their veteran QB gives them the best chance to win and will do whatever it takes to keep him upright. Iowa State is coming off of its bye as well and enters the latest installment of “Farmageddon” fresh off a 59-7 rout of Kansas and knows it will take K-State’s best punch following last year’s 45-0 blowout that is still fresh on the Wildcats’ minds.
The Cyclones have lost 12 of the last 15 meetings in this series and haven’t won in Manhattan since 2004, dropping the last seven encounters in the “Little Apple.” Brock Purdy threw for four touchdowns in the first quarter against the Jayhawks but he and Breece Hall have underachieved this season. Expect Iowa State’s offensive efficiency to continue coming out of the bye, particularly since K-State has struggled getting stops. The Wildcats are typically good at home but went just 1-3 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium last season and are 1-1 this season.
TCU at Oklahoma, 7:30 p.m. ET
The Sooners won one of the wilder Red River Showdowns ever last Saturday in rallying from a 28-7 deficit behind QB Caleb Williams to win 55-48. Former Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler was benched for ineffective play, which obviously carries over to this week’s clash with TCU. He’s got 10 touchdown passes and five interceptions this season but half of those TD passes came in a blowout of Western Carolina. Rattler has been sloppy and erratic throwing it, which is not what anyone expected considering he largely lived up to the hype as a redshirt freshman in replacing Jalen Hurts and leading the Sooners to a Big 12 title and a bowl win over Florida.
Rattler re-entered and threw a pass for a key two-point conversion late in the fourth but may ultimately find himself behind Williams, an 18-year-old true freshman from Washington D.C. Head coach Lincoln Riley was non-committal in naming a starter all week.
Despite flirting with disaster against Tulane, Nebraska, West Virginia, and Texas, Oklahoma is unbeaten and in position to finish in the top four nationally. TCU has dropped six straight games against OU, last winning in 2014. Last season’s game came just after the Texas game for the Sooners, although they did have a bye week in between.
The Sooners beat the Horned Frogs 33-14 and are 10-1 following the last 11 Red River Showdowns. The Horned Frogs crushed Texas Tech 52-31 in Lubbock last Saturday, rushing for 394 yards as backs Kendre Miller and Zach Evans topped the 100-yards mark and QB Max Duggan got loose when he needed to. Evans didn’t even record a second-half carry so he should be fresh for this matchup. TCU’s run defense was gashed by the Red Raiders and doesn’t figure to hold up well against Kennedy Brooks. The books have set this total at 65.5 and although the last two meetings have failed to produce that many points, it wouldn’t be stunning to see this game wind up similar to the 52-46 game the Sooners captured in Fort Worth in ’16. Points and pace should dictate here.