College football this weekend: Storylines, games to watch, Heisman watch

Imagine for a moment a college football fan decided to conduct an experiment back in August. Armed with plenty of offseason knowledge about how things were “supposed” to turn out this season, they promised to avoid all contact with the sport and not re-engage with it until November.

This isn’t a real-life scenario, though there are some Clemson fans out there who probably wish it were possible. But outside the Tigers transforming into a .500 team, the person just catching up on the season wouldn’t be alarmed by a whole lot.

Of the top 10 teams in the preseason Associated Press poll, seven are still there this week, with No. 13 LSU not far off. (Clemson and Southern California are the tumblers). Of the programs that cracked the preseason top 25, 19 are ranked at the dawn of November. (The decliners: Clemson — again! — Iowa, North Carolina, Texas A&M, TCU and Wisconsin.)

Drill deeper into the results, and the lack of chaos is even more evident. Top-15 teams have lost only eight games to unranked opponents; top-10 teams have dropped three such games. And good luck with finding the random road lightning strike; the top 15, in its various iterations this season, is 48-1 at home against unranked visitors. Virginia’s 31-27 defeat of North Carolina on Oct. 21 is the exception.

How does it compare with the end of last October, when TCU was on its way to an out-of-nowhere playoff berth? On a game-to-game level, there were nine losses to unranked teams by the top 15 (not much different) and six by teams in the top 10.

Unranked teams were 4-52 at top-15 opponents, including Appalachian State (at Texas A&M) and Marshall (at Notre Dame) winning on the same September day, and Kansas State (at Oklahoma) and South Carolina (at Kentucky) claiming victories that don’t look so stunning in hindsight.

Perspective: A better College Football Playoff arrives next year. It can’t come soon enough.

But there was still movement elsewhere. Only half of the preseason top 10 was still there at the start of November. More tellingly, 13 teams that began 2022 outside the top 25 were nestled there two-thirds of the way through the season.

That is what reveals what this fall is not. Maybe there are fewer total stunners, though probably not by much. What’s been missing is a sense of fluidity, evidence the gap between the tier of teams still in national title contention and everybody else isn’t very large.

It’s made for a season that has felt much more static than usual, and there hasn’t been reason to budge from many offseason assumptions. And it’s part of why Kansas’s 38-33 defeat of Oklahoma last week was so easy to appreciate, even before students tore down a goal post and tossed it in a lake. It was an entirely unexpected variable, and those have been in short supply in 2023.

It’s tempting to find a trend or an eventual reaction. Maybe November will be extra loopy. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the college sports boogeymen of nearly unrestricted free agency (the transfer portal) and pay-for-play (NIL arrangements), and it will continue to suck even more fun out of the sport in the future than TV-fueled conference changes already have.

The most likely explanation: It’s an unusual quirk, one that has left a lot of the sport’s usual suspects unscathed against non-bluebloods and will probably yield a playoff without an interloper such as Cincinnati or TCU.

It’s enough to make a fan of any national power who hasn’t paid attention to this season smile. Well, unless they root for Clemson.

One of the casualties of this round of conference consolidation is the annual Bedlam encounter between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, a series that began in 1904 — three years before Oklahoma achieved statehood — and has been played without interruption since 1910.

At least until Oklahoma’s pending move to the SEC next year.

Considering the schools have been the Big 12’s most consistent programs since the last major seismic shift in college sports, it’s apt they’ll be playing to be assured a share of the league lead (with the Kansas State-Texas winner and potentially Iowa State, if it can defeat Kansas) in their last scheduled meeting.

The in-state foes have taken different paths to this showdown at Boone Pickens Stadium. Oklahoma was coming off a rare losing season, but it got to the midpoint of the year at 6-0 when it scrambled past Texas in the final minute. But it couldn’t finish off Central Florida until late, then saw its national title hopes badly damaged with a loss last week at Kansas. Still, if it wins out, it will play for one final Big 12 championship.

Oklahoma State (6-2, 4-1) would no doubt savor denying the Sooners that chance, which seemed unlikely when the Cowboys lost to South Alabama on Sept. 16 and opened their league schedule a week later with a 34-27 hiccup at Iowa State.

But the latter game began the unleashing of Ollie Gordon II, whose four-game run in October frequently led to invocations of Barry Sanders’s name. That’s no small thing in Stillwater.

Gordon rushed for 857 yards and eight touchdowns last month, amassing 8.2 yards a carry. He has surpassed 270 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games. He rumbled for 282 yards and four scores at West Virginia on Oct. 21, then tacked on 271 yards last week against Cincinnati.

The only other Cowboy to pull off back-to-back 250-yard rushing games? Sanders.

One thing the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner didn’t do, though? Drop the curtain on a long-running rivalry with a monster game to dispatch the Sooners from national title contention. Gordon and the Cowboys can do just that and secure long-running (if not necessarily eternal) bragging rights as a result.

Back when gobbling up new television markets was the raison d’être fueling conference expansion, Missouri primarily represented new territory for the SEC.

Then Mizzou went and won the East Division in two of its first three years in the league, upending the assumption it wouldn’t be heard from in a division with Florida (then under the stewardship of Will Muschamp), Georgia (during the solid-but-not-terribly-frisky latter stages of Mark Richt’s tenure) and Tennessee (which was shaking off the Derek Dooley era with Butch Jones’s initial rebuilding efforts).

Then, as football prophet Dennis Green might have said, the Tigers were who we thought they were. They had a 4-8 dud in 2016 after longtime coach Gary Pinkel retired. They enjoyed a fabulous November in 2018 to get to 8-4 before a Liberty Bowl loss.

But mostly, they remained tethered close to .500. Check out the past four seasons: 6-6, 5-5, 6-7 and 6-7.

Now, though? Missouri is having a moment.

The Tigers are 7-1 for the first time since 2013. Luther Burden III (905 yards, six touchdowns) is one of the best wideouts anywhere. Junior quarterback Brady Cook (2,259 yards, 15 touchdowns, three interceptions) doesn’t make many mistakes and ranks third in the SEC behind LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Alabama’s Jalen Milroe, just a sliver ahead of Georgia’s Carson Beck (166.22-166.16 in the NCAA’s pass efficiency metric).

Mizzou strung together some close victories in nonconference play, but its three SEC wins have all come by at least 17 points. The loss was a 49-39 decision at home against LSU, but it’s not like anyone else in the league has figured out how to slow down Daniels, either.

Maybe the Tigers caught a break or two in September, but they are clearly improved. But improved enough to navigate Georgia, Tennessee and Florida in the next three weeks? It’s a fair question.

Still, it’s an incredible opportunity. The Tigers put a scare into Georgia last year, nearly stopping what is now a 25-game winning streak at six before the Bulldogs rallied to escape, 26-22. Finish the job Saturday, and an arguably overlooked team will be a popular topic of conversation as an SEC and playoff contender.

Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan and Florida State top first CFP rankings

Five with the most at stake

A look at teams with plenty on the line in Week 10.

1. Texas. The Longhorns (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) will need at least a little help to land a playoff berth, but they absolutely must help themselves by winning out over the next five weeks. That means figuring out a way to topple Kansas State (6-2, 4-1), which has clubbed its past two foes. Texas has won six in a row against the Wildcats and has not lost to K-State in Austin since 2011.

2. Missouri. The moment of truth is here for the Tigers (7-1, 3-1 SEC), who find themselves in the enviable position of not really needing any assistance to make the playoff. The caveat? They need to beat Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and the SEC West champ in succession to make that happen. That stretch starts Saturday against Georgia, which is 10-1 against Mizzou as conference rivals.

3. Alabama. The Crimson Tide (7-1, 5-0 SEC) zips out of an open date and has LSU (6-2, 4-1) coming to town, and the scenario is quite basic. Win, and Alabama remains in the playoff hunt and becomes a near-certainty to win the SEC West. Lose, and the national title hopes vaporize and a league title becomes a much dicier proposition.

4. Mississippi. It’s easy to forget the Rebels (7-1, 4-1 SEC) are still a viable playoff contender, but they’re going to have to win out to remain that way. Next week’s trip to Georgia could finish off Lane Kiffin’s bunch as a part of the championship conversation, but before that is a visit from Texas A&M (5-3, 3-2). The Aggies snapped a two-game slide last week and have a habit in the Jimbo Fisher era of pulling surprises well after their own title dreams have been dashed.

5. Washington. The Huskies (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) follow up a pair of lackluster showings against Arizona State and Stanford with a trip to Southern California (7-2, 5-1). The Trojans can’t seem to stop anybody, but that doesn’t mean they can’t derail Washington with an offense that just hung half a hundred on Cal last week. Washington needs to play better; USC is wobbling but still capable of outscoring just about anyone on its schedule.

A weekly look at the race for college football’s favorite stiff-arming statue

1. QB Jayden Daniels, LSU (2,573 yards, 25 touchdowns, three interceptions passing; 521 yards, five TDs rushing). The ultimate test for a college quarterback is going up against a Nick Saban-coached defense that has had extra time to prepare. Daniels does that Saturday in Tuscaloosa. (Last week: 1)

2. QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington (2,945 yards, 24 TDs, six INTs passing). Penix enjoyed his most efficient day in more than a month last week against Stanford, torching the Cardinal for 369 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. There’s reason to be worried about the Huskies’ potential to run the table, but Penix isn’t the source of that concern. (LW: 2)

3. QB Bo Nix, Oregon (2,337 yards, 21 TDs, one INT passing; 113 yards, three TDs rushing). Nix left Utah’s defense torn asunder, which is no small thing against such a consistent unit. He heads into November completing 78.3 percent of his passes, including at least 72 percent in all eight of the Ducks’ games. (LW: 3)

4. WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State (48 catches, 889 yards, eight TDs receiving). Again, the Buckeyes navigated a low-scoring Big Ten game because they had Harrison and their opponent did not. The junior collected six passes for 123 yards and two scores in a 24-10 triumph at Wisconsin (LW: 5)

5. RB Ollie Gordon II, Oklahoma State (1,087 yards, 10 TDs rushing; 21 catches, 201 yards, one TD receiving). The sophomore followed up his 282-yard day at West Virginia by rumbling for 271 yards against Cincinnati. Now the Football Bowl Subdivision leader in rushing yards, Gordon can make an even greater statement with Oklahoma coming to town for the final Bedlam game with both schools in the Big 12. (LW: T-6)

6. QB Carson Beck, Georgia (2,462 yards, 14 TDs, four INTs passing). The definition of a workmanlike day for the first-year starter is 315 yards and two touchdowns. That’s what Beck piled up in the Bulldogs’ drubbing of Florida. (LW: T-6)

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