1. Two pivotal Big Ten results will shape the conference’s title race and playoff chase
The dramatic finish to No. 7 Michigan State’s 27–23 win over No. 12 Michigan—with the Spartans trailing by two, Jalen Watts-Jackson recovered a botched punt and returned it for a touchdown with no time remaining—understandably received most of the attention in the game’s aftermath. But now that everyone’s jaws have returned from their dropped positions, it’s important to recognize the critical impact of this result.
Saturday’s loss likely ends Michigan’s College Football Playoff chances. It’s possible that if the Wolverines won out, Michigan State and No. 1 Ohio State both dropped some surprising games and Michigan won the Big Ten title, it could sneak back into the top four. But with two losses, the Wolverines would need chaos to strike far too many teams to have a real shot. A Big Ten championship is more reachable, as Michigan's other loss—to Utah—came out of conference, but the Wolverines would still need some help and a win over Ohio State. As cruel as it is that such a freak play could be so decisive, that’s Michigan’s reality.
Michigan State however is in the best position to challenge Ohio State for a Big Ten East title. The Spartans and Buckeyes meet on Nov. 21 in Columbus, but Michigan State has now passed a critical test that Ohio State won’t face until the final week of the season. (The Buckeyes offered one of their best performances of the season Saturday with a 38–10 victory over Penn State.) The Spartans entered Saturday on the heels of uninspiring wins over Purdue and Rutgers; though they hardly dominated Michigan, they were the better team even before Watts-Jackson’s touchdown gave them their first lead of the game. Perhaps this will jumpstart Michigan State and halt its slide from No. 2 in the AP poll after Week 3 to No. 7 this week.
On the other side of the Big Ten, the division race looks much clearer. No. 17 Iowa ran over No. 20 Northwestern 40–10 in Evanston on Saturday, pushing the Hawkeyes’ undefeated mark to 7–0. There’s a very real chance that Iowa could finish the regular season 12–0. The Hawkeyes’ remaining matchups are vs. Maryland, at Indiana, vs. Minnesota and Purdue and at Nebraska—all games in which Kirk Ferentz’s squad should be favored. The Hawkeyes boast a powerful running game, one that racked up 294 yards on the Wildcats despite losing starter Jordan Canzeri to injury in the first quarter.
Iowa will present an interesting case for the playoff selection committee once the committee begins releasing its rankings on Nov. 3. The Hawkeyes could easily get to 12–0 with zero wins over ranked opponents. Wisconsin and Northwestern were both ranked at the time Iowa beat them, but the Badgers have fallen out of the rankings and Saturday’s loss will likely knock the Wildcats out, too. Still, the Hawkeyes have a clear path to the Big Ten title game, and if they beat Michigan State or Ohio State there, it’ll be nearly impossible for the committee to leave them out of the playoff.
2. LSU is the SEC’s front-runner
The Tigers earned their perch atop the conference with a narrow 35–28 victory over Florida, decided by a fake field goal that kicker Trent Domingue carried 16 yards for what proved to be the winning score. Star running back Leonard Fournette continued his quest for the Heisman Trophy with 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns while quarterback Brandon Harris chipped in with 202 yards passing and two touchdowns. The Tigers’ defense held the Gators to just 55 yards on the ground on 31 carries.
The Tigers’ strengths are obvious—Fournette and a defense that is giving up just 4.5 yards per play, and so too are its flaws—even in one of Harris’s best games this season LSU still had a 41-to-19 run-pass ratio. But in a season in which no team looks perfect, there’s something to be said for simply knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are.
LSU must get past a potential trap game against Western Kentucky next week and then has a bye week before traveling to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama, which kept its division title hopes alive by beating Texas A&M 41–23 Saturday. The Tigers also still have matchups with SEC West contenders Ole Miss and the Aggies.
The road certainly isn’t easy, but now unlike every other team in the conference the Tigers don’t have to be perfect. While one loss would likely sink Alabama or Texas A&M from the conference race and the playoff race, LSU can afford to drop a game—though doing so could expose it to the whims of a divisional tiebreaker. That’s the margin for error the Tigers have earned by their 6–0 start.
3. It’d take a lot going right to happen, but Memphis gives the Group of Five a playoff shot
The Tigers earned their first victory over a ranked opponent since 1996 when they toppled No. 13 Ole Miss on Saturday 37–24. The win positions Justin Fuente’s squad to make a run at an undefeated season, one that, if the right pieces fall perfectly into place, could send Memphis to the playoff.
Paxton Lynch gives the Tigers an elite option under center, a feature sorely lacking from many of the SEC’s playoff hopefuls. Lynch powered Memphis’s offense Saturday with 384 yards on 39 of 53 passing with three touchdowns and one interception. The Tigers’ defense took a beating in a 44–41 win over Bowling Green and 53–46 victory over Cincinnati, but it did its part Saturday to pull the upset. Ole Miss converted just 4 of 13 third-down tries and failed on its two fourth-down tries. The Rebels got almost nothing on the ground, gaining just 40 yards on 24 carries.
Now that Memphis has passed its toughest test, there’s no reason the Tigers aren’t capable of running the table. So the question turns to where such a run would leave Memphis. The American Athletic Conference is clearly the strongest Group of Five league this year, so conference play will offer the Tigers some chances to impress the playoff committee, particularly if they can go on the road and beat Houston and Temple, both currently undefeated, in consecutive weeks in November. Houston is currently No. 24 in the AP poll, while Temple is just outside the top 25, so when combined with the Ole Miss victory, a 12–0 Memphis would likely have a better résumé than a 12–0 Iowa.
Still the Tigers don’t control their own playoff fate. Even if they go unbeaten they’ll need some help. Houston, Temple and Navy continuing their hot starts is critical to the reputation of the American. More importantly, Memphis needs Ole Miss to go unbeaten for the rest of the season. The Rebels still have just one conference loss and hold the tiebreaker over Alabama after beating the Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium. If Ole Miss wins out, it’ll win the SEC West. If it wins the conference championship game, it’ll likely be the SEC’s best shot at a playoff berth. Could the committee really take a two-loss power conference team over an unbeaten Group of Five team that beat it head-to-head?
No, but the committee could instead pass over both for teams from the other Power Five conferences. Still, with the flaws nearly every team has shown this season, it’s hard to imagine any Power Five team finishing the year unbeaten, and it’s possible fewer than four could finish with one loss. That’s the type of widespread chaos that could send Memphis to the playoff.