This week’s slate of games will be the final opportunity teams have to make an impression on the College Football Playoff committee before the first set of rankings come out.
A number of teams are still in the hunt for those top four spots, but no game this weekend has bigger consequences than the Michigan-Michigan State game. With the Wolverines ranked No. 6 and the Spartans at No. 8, it’s only the fifth time these two teams will play with both teams ranked in the AP top 10 and the first since 1964.
The game itself is big enough for both programs, but adding in potential playoff implications magnifies the meaning of the result.
“It’s one of those, it’s elimination mindset, playoff mindset at this point,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “You win this game, it’ll help your chances.”
This is only the sixth Big Ten conference game in the poll era where both teams are 7-0, and the players and coaches aren’t pretending that this is just another game. It has meaning for the rivalry, as far as who gets to take home the Paul Bunyan trophy and bragging rights, but it also could be a catapult into rare air.
Michigan has never been to the Big Ten championship game under Jim Harbaugh and has never been to the playoff. The players know they need to up the intensity, focus and preparation without straying from what has gotten them to this point in the first place.
“When you change how you prepare during the season, that’s a problem,” Michigan linebacker Josh Ross said. “We’ve been preparing the right way every week, and this week it definitely is higher stakes and we’re going against an in-state rival, but just attack it the same way. Elevate it for sure, but at the end of the day, it’s about us having a great week of preparation and attacking it the right way like we have been doing every single week this season.”
Ross grew up in Michigan and has been part of this rivalry his whole life, so he understands what is at stake.
For Mel Tucker and the Spartans, they revamped their roster with transfers this past offseason and will be playing with new faces and first-time participants in this rivalry.
Tucker doesn’t believe that hinders the new players and it won’t impact the final outcome — partly because he gave his team a history lesson on the rivalry, but also because it’s organically ingrained into the players throughout the year.
“In this type of rivalry, I believe so, because it’s in your face and it’s not just today, it’s every single day since the day I’ve been here, Feb. 12, 2020,” Tucker said. “There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that someone hasn’t mentioned to me something about this game.”
Tucker said he believes that execution prevails in games like these, and both teams hope their preparation and execution will get them through this week and into the top four of these first playoff rankings. — Tom VanHaaren
No. 1 Georgia vs. Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Georgia coach Kirby Smart isn’t saying whether JT Daniels or Stetson Bennett will start at quarterback for the No. 1 Bulldogs in Saturday’s game against Florida.
And, if anyone was wondering whether the Gators would try to go without a passer against the top-ranked defense in the FBS, coach Dan Mullen at least confirmed on Wednesday that someone will indeed play under center. He just wouldn’t say who.
“We will play a quarterback on Saturday,” Mullen said.
Neither coach is willing to reveal much as their teams prepare to meet for their annual rivalry game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. The Bulldogs will try to avenge last year’s 44-28 loss to the Gators, while Florida will attempt to spoil Georgia’s bid for a perfect regular season and a CFP spot.
Bennett, who started last season’s game against the Gators and injured his right shoulder, has guided the Bulldogs to three straight victories against ranked opponents. Daniels hasn’t played since the first quarter of a 62-0 victory at Vanderbilt on Sept. 25 because of a lat injury.
Smart said Daniels, a former USC transfer, who started three of the first four games, has been throwing more in practice. Smart isn’t showing his hand more than that.
Likewise, Mullen isn’t saying much about his quarterbacks. Emory Jones has started every game this season, but freshman Anthony Richardson guided the Gators to four straight touchdowns in the second half of a 49-42 loss at LSU on Oct. 16.
Smart isn’t sure his team’s defensive plan changes much with either quarterback.
“They don’t hold back,” Smart said. “They may feel like there’s differences I’m not aware of, but when you look at the quarterback reels, there’s plays within each game that both quarterbacks run. They don’t not run quarterback draw, dropback pass, zone read or speed option with one guy or the other. There’s most packages they both carry. He may limit one guy’s packages opposed to the other, but the way the games are called, they have very similar plays.
“They’re physically different in their build, both tremendous athletes, and both tough guys to defend in terms of 53 yards of sideline, and an extra hat in the run game makes it tough.” — Mark Schlabach
Texas Tech at No. 4 Oklahoma (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App): Texas Tech fired its head coach, Matt Wells, this week after losing a 14-point second-half lead to Kansas State, another disappointing conference loss. So longtime Tech and TCU assistant Sonny Cumbie will get his first chance at running his own show in the interim — beginning with a trip to Norman to face No. 4 Oklahoma this week.
But if you didn’t know better, the Sooners sounded like they were going through their own turmoil this week.
“We feel like there are a number of older, veteran guys on this team right now that need to be at their best and this team needs them to be better,” OU coach Lincoln Riley told reporters on Tuesday. “And we’ve made that adamantly clear.”
The difference, of course is that the Red Raiders are 7-16 in conference games in their past three seasons, whereas the Sooners are 20-3 in that same span, including 5-0 this year en route to an 8-0 overall record and 16 straight overall wins. But after trailing Kansas at halftime, as the Sooners did last week, a whole new level of scrutiny is inevitable.
OU has won six straight Big 12 titles but is on the defensive about its lackluster performances. In the eyes of the playoff selection committee, it would have to battle the similarities to the 2014 Florida State team, which got in largely because it was undefeated despite winning seven games by less than one score. The Seminoles were then blown out by Oregon 59-20 in a semifinal playoff game.
The good news is the Sooners can expect the return of Jalen Redmond, the defensive lineman who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss in 2019 before redshirting last season, after suffering a knee injury against Nebraska. Any and all reinforcements are important — the Sooners are also missing key pieces at corner and safety — as they’ve struggled mightily on defense since the second half of the Texas game.
Riley knows Tech will be fired up to play for Cumbie. The two Red Raiders alumni were members of the same QB room as students before they both became Tech assistants. But he says getting a team’s best shot is just a fact of life for the Sooners, and he’s still confident their best football is to come.
“I’ve been around here long enough that if you keep winning, things tend to work themselves out,” Riley said. “We have eight wins. We have the longest winning streak in the country. The sky is not falling. Don’t write us off yet.” — Dave Wilson
Colorado at No. 7 Oregon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox): Depending on how you look at it, No. 7 Oregon’s game against 2-5 Colorado on Saturday is an opportunity or a trap. After losing to Stanford, the Ducks (6-1) have been walking a tightrope the past two weeks with close wins against Cal and UCLA. This is their reality: A second loss, and you can forget about the playoff; a continued streak of tight wins against inferior opponents, and you can start introducing doubt into their playoff case. Struggling to beat the Buffs at home would certainly do that.
Of course, as far as Mario Cristobal & Co. are concerned, all they have to do is keep winning, and there’s something to be said for a team that can continue to grind out wins. Cristobal praised his team’s resiliency in his news conference Monday before taking the blame for the interception Anthony Brown threw late in the fourth quarter of the UCLA game that almost cost Oregon the game.
“We’d like to have that playcall back,” Cristobal said. “The throw wasn’t what we wanted, either. Not a good play, and not the call we wanted.”
The Ducks escaped that mistake, but it was a reminder that the margins are slimmer than ever, especially for teams vying for playoff spots. Beating the Buffs handily would go a long way toward making a positive impression on the committee, and it would likely set them up to be in control of their playoff destiny the rest of the way. What Oregon may be lacking in style points lately (outside of Kayvon Thibodeaux, of course) it still has in its early-season win in Columbus over Ohio State. It’s one of the best wins of the season, but how many close calls can the Ducks afford before the luster starts to wear off? — Paolo Uggetti
Duke at No. 13 Wake Forest (4 p.m. ET, ACC Network): As the only undefeated team left in the ACC, No. 13 Wake Forest (7-0) has to get used to a new reality headed into its final five games: playing as a favorite to make it into the ACC championship game from the Atlantic Division.
“We’re not very surprised at the success, but the one thing we’re adjusting to is we’re the target of everyone we’re going to play for the rest of the year,” quarterback Sam Hartman told ESPN.com this week. “We’re getting everybody’s best game. We’re not little old Wake Forest that everybody doesn’t take as seriously as they should.”
Wake Forest enters its game against in-state rival Duke as a double-digit favorite, coming off an impressive offensive display against Army, in which Hartman threw for five touchdowns and 458 yards in the 70-56 victory.
It stands to reason that if Wake Forest wins Saturday, one of the more intriguing questions headed into the rankings reveal will be where the selection committee places an undefeated ACC team not named Clemson. For their part, Hartman said nobody on his team even knew the first committee rankings were coming out Tuesday.
That makes sense, considering Wake Forest has been ranked only once in the CFP selection committee rankings, at No. 19 in 2019. This certainly is a unique scenario but one that Wake Forest players believed could happen before the season even began.
Hartman described a different aura around the team during offseason workouts, and “a feeling around this team that there was something special brewing.”
Receiver Jaquarii Roberson added, “We want to keep pushing and hit our highest peak. We want to keep going. We don’t want to settle for anything. I know our guys are going to keep getting better every day. It’s very exciting. It really is.” — Andrea Adelson
No. 20 Penn State at No. 5 Ohio State (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App): Ohio State’s rickety start on defense led to a playcaller change from Kerry Coombs to Matt Barnes, but the responsibility for the product, and getting things fixed, fell on the entire defensive staff.
“It’s not OK to lose here at Ohio State,” Barnes told ESPN. “We all had to look at ourselves and really make some hard decisions and have some tough conversations about how we move forward. Everybody involved has taken ownership and really tried to put egos aside.”
The Buckeyes have made strides since the first three games, where Minnesota and Oregon eclipsed 200 rushing yards and Tulsa racked up 428 passing yards. In the four games since, Ohio State allowed 44 total points and 259.5 yards per game, albeit against inferior competition.
Barnes thinks coaches must always evaluate scheme, how the scheme is being implemented and personnel, especially when things aren’t going well. The staff quickly concluded that the players aren’t the problem — “We have, at Ohio State, the best players,” Barnes said — and instead focused on schematic tweaks that players could process and execute. Ohio State has maintained a healthy rotation of defenders, especially at linebacker and in the secondary.
“In some areas, we’ve become simpler, but at least have created the appearance of multiplicity,” said Barnes, who had been working with Ohio State’s secondary before the playcalling switch. “Not just sitting in the same picture.”
Saturday’s game pits Ohio State’s strength on defense — stopping the run — against Penn State’s weakness on offense. PSU ranks 100th nationally in rushing (118.9 yards per game) and generated only 62 rush yards in last week’s nine-overtime loss to Illinois.
Coach James Franklin expects starting quarterback Sean Clifford to be at full strength Saturday, but PSU must find some running room against an Ohio State defense that has held four teams to 76 rush yards or fewer.
“We’ve got to be more physical up front,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to create more push and play to the echo the whistle and create space. Then, our running backs have got to be decisive and get downhill. And we’ve got to keep people honest with our perimeter throwing games so people can’t overload the box.” — Adam Rittenberg
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