- Kentucky to a New Year's Six bowl? Notre Dame getting upset on the road? Our experts made bold predictions on a number of topics before the second half of the season kicks off.
With a half-season's worth of storylines completed, it's time to turn toward the future. Before the second half begins we asked our experts to make some bold predictions about a number topics, ranging from the New Year's Six bowls to unexpected upsets to the hot seat to the Heisman race.
How many teams will be undefeated on Selection Sunday?
Andy Staples: Two. Alabama and UCF. Alabama will make the playoff. UCF will not.
Ross Dellenger: Two. Alabama and Ohio State. The Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes have some land mines ahead: road trip to LSU for Bama; games against Michigan and Michigan State for OSU. And they’ll both likely have to defeat a top 15 team in a championship game. But we’ll roll the dice here and guess they’ll get through it all unscathed.
Joan Niesen: Three: UCF, Alabama and Clemson. Cincinnati and USF will ultimately fall prey to the Knights, and there’s some kind of trap loss on Ohio State’s schedule, potentially against Michigan State or at Michigan.
Laken Litman: There are currently eight undefeated teams, and there could legitimately be five on Selection Sunday, with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame and USF going unbeaten over the next month-and-a-half. Alabama’s biggest hurdle comes Nov. 3 against LSU in Death Valley; Clemson has a clear path, but anything could happen against NC State, Florida State or in the conference title game against likely opponent Virginia Tech; Notre Dame gets a break this week following a narrow win over Pitt but should be 11–0 heading into its regular season finale against USC on the road; Ohio State still has to play Michigan State and Michigan but should pass those tests; and USF faces fellow unbeatens UCF and Cincinnati, but Charlie Strong’s team might be poised to make an undefeated run.
Eric Single: Three: Alabama, Clemson and UCF. Chaos lurks ahead in the Big Ten (looking right at you, Michigan State–Ohio State), while UCF will hold off the other AAC unbeatens and force the committee to directly leave it out of playoff talk. NC State is a bigger threat to Clemson than the ACC Coastal champion, so as long as the Tigers avoid a heart-stopper in Week 8, they should have clear skies ahead on the way to the final four.
Scooby Axson: Alabama and UCF. Alabama is playing at another level, and it will take a powerful offense and defense to keep the score close—and there isn’t a team out there that possesses both. Central Florida can run through the AAC like it has for the past two years, but its strength of schedule is nothing to write home about and that’s why, despite being undefeated, the Knights aren’t getting close to sniffing the playoff.
Which team outside the current top 12 will make a New Year’s Six bowl?
Staples: It’s Kentucky. I’m not going too deep here because the Wildcats are ranked No. 14 in this week’s Associated Press poll, but this team shouldn’t lose more than one game down the stretch. (And I’m not handing that game to Georgia at this point, either.) The Wildcats have a win in hand against Florida, and if they keep winning, the Bulldogs’ trip to Lexington on Nov. 3 should be the de facto SEC East title game.
Dellenger: Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 5–1 and get current Big Ten West leader Northwestern at home on Nov. 10. Sure, they’ve lost to Wisconsin already, but we’ll give the slightest of edges to Kirk Ferentz and the boys to advance to the Big Ten title, lose to OSU and land in a New Year’s Six. They are currently ranked No. 19 in the AP.
Niesen: Granted, it’s riiiiight there, at No. 13 this week, but I’m going with West Virginia. Dana Holgorsen’s team lost in a squeaker to an up-and-coming Iowa State team on Saturday, which shouldn’t distract from how well it’s played all season. And with a second-half schedule that’s anything but foreboding, the Mountaineers will get a Fiesta Bowl spot—or at least, that’s what I’m predicting in my midseason crystal ball. (Another sneaky pick here is No. 23 Wisconsin. They still have a clear path to the Big Ten title game, and there’s a world in which Wisconsin plays well there, Michigan’s season falls apart, and ta-da, Rose Bowl.)
Litman: NC State is 5–0 for the first time since 2002 and waiting for its chance to play Clemson. Ryan Finley is the most efficient quarterback in his conference, completing 69% of his passes and leading all league passers with 324.2 yards per game. His go-to target is receiver Kelvin Harmon, who leads the ACC with 106.8 ypg. It was too bad the Wolfpack’s game against West Virginia was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence, but their schedule sets up nicely for a chance to make a legitimate run at a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Single: NC State. As long as the Wolfpack acquit themselves half-decently in Death Valley, they’ll stay in striking range of New Year’s Six position even after suffering their first loss of the season. (If they beat Clemson, we’re having an entirely different conversation.) The toughest game after Saturday is either a Thursday nighter against Wake Forest or a Thanksgiving weekend trip to play a UNC team with nothing to lose. There may not be many head-turning wins in that hypothetical 11–1 record, but the committee won’t be able to turn it down.
Axson: Kentucky. The Wildcats have proven they are a top 25 team and, despite a loss to Texas A&M in overtime, can navigate their way to playing in a New Year’s Six bowl due to their schedule. Their toughest remaining game is against Georgia, and they get the Bulldogs at home. But it comes with a caveat: they need to find more balance on offense despite the talents of RB Benny Snell.
Which second-half upset will no one see coming?
Staples: Texas Tech beats Oklahoma in Lubbock on Nov. 3. This will be a matchup of coaches who know one another’s schemes intimately. And if the Red Raiders are still using Jett Duffey—who adds a dangerous running component—at quarterback, this one could melt the scoreboard with him and Kyler Murray going head-to-head.
Dellenger: USC over Notre Dame. O.K., you might see this coming, but the Irish, right now, would be road favorites by a healthy margin. The Trojans host the Irish in their yearly regular season finale, a playoff game for Notre Dame in a hostile environment, clear across the continent. This one is shaping up to be ND’s biggest test of the second half of the year, and the Trojans are starting to play well. Look out.
Niesen: I’m going to continue the “is Texas back?” debate here, by predicting it’ll swing in the other direction in November. The Longhorns are on their way back, sure, but I don’t see this top-10 ranking persisting, and I think they’ll go into Lubbock on Nov. 10 and lose.
Litman: UCF, which declared itself 2017 national champions following a perfect season and a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, will have its undefeated season on the line when it travels to USF for its final regular season game the day after Thanksgiving. The matchup could pit two unbeaten Florida teams, but there’s only room for one Group of Five team in a New Year’s Six bowl, and this year that spot will belong to Charlie Strong’s Bulls.
Single: Notre Dame at Northwestern. After their bye week, the Irish have to go all the way out to San Diego to play Navy, then return home and make the short drive up to Evanston to play Northwestern one week later. That may feel like generous scheduling, but Ryan Field is not exactly known as a venue where everything goes according to script. The Wildcats have not looked like world-beaters, but they gave Michigan all it could handle at home and beat Michigan State two weeks ago. If quarterback Clayton Thorson is given time to heat up, he can deal a death blow to the Irish’s playoff hopes.
Axson: Clemson at Boston College, Nov. 10. This is by far the biggest obstacle to Clemson returning to the playoff. Boston College has the ingredients to pull off the upset: the game is at home, and it has running back A.J. Dillon. Despite Clemson giving up less than three yards a carry, Boston College must continue to pound the rock, keep the Clemson offense off the field and not put the game in the hands of its quarterback, Anthony Brown.
Who will coach themselves out of hot seat consideration in the second half?
Staples: Kliff Kingsbury seems on his way to job security. If in August you showed me a group of headlines from the past two weeks, the one I absolutely wouldn’t have believed is “Texas Tech Beats TCU 17–14 on the Road.” For most of Kingsbury’s tenure, the Red Raiders’ biggest problem was that they could only win games one way. If they can play shootouts with the likes of Oklahoma and slugfests with the likes of Texas, then they have a chance to make an impact on the Big 12 title race.
Dellenger: Missouri coach Barry Odom. It’s not really clear just how hot Odom’s seat is, but it’s worth noting that he’s 14–17 in two and a half seasons at a program Gary Pinkel turned into a yearly championship contender. The Tigers have lost three straight, including a blown game at South Carolina and a miscue-filled performance in a game against Georgia that they could have won. But things are looking up. Odom’s club hosts Memphis and Kentucky the next two weeks before a trip to The Swamp. The final three games are winnable: vs. Vanderbilt, at Tennessee, vs. Arkansas.
Niesen: Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt team put up a good effort against Notre Dame on Saturday, with its defense looking better than it has all year. The Panthers have a weirdly doable schedule going forward; no ranked teams remain, but two with some decent ACC name-recognition loom: Virginia Tech and Miami. Neither of those team is quite the power we imagined them to be in August (or even September), but beating them still sounds good, and Narduzzi could pull off a W, especially at home against the Hokies.
Litman: Kliff Kingsbury might be doing just enough to secure himself another season in Lubbock. Texas Tech is 4–2 with wins over TCU and Oklahoma State and there are more winnable games to come in the second half with Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor left on the schedule (Oklahoma and Texas are there, too, though). Red Raiders fans love Kingsbury, but they’re tired of .500 seasons. After last year’s 6–7 finish, athletic director Kirby Hocutt said the team needed to show improvement. Eight wins should help Kingsbury miss out on the coaching carousel again.
Single: Lovie Smith, Illinois. The fact that Smith’s buyout number reportedly sits north of $12 million this year could protect him on its own, but thanks to a soft early schedule, the 3–3 Illini have already equaled their best win total under Smith and should have an opportunity to add to that down the stretch against Big Ten West foes. Four of their final six games are on the road, but the trips to Nebraska and Northwestern could both prove to be winnable games, and Minnesota comes to Champaign on Nov. 3 with an offense that has not consistently travelled with them. Even getting to five wins could be construed as a step forward, and the drubbing at the hands of Purdue notwithstanding, Illinois has shown flashes of a respectable offense under first-year coordinator Rod Smith.
Axson: Bobby Petrino, Louisville. This choice has absolutely nothing to do with coaching. Louisville is finding it hard to win without a transcendent Heisman Trophy winner and didn’t take advantage of having Lamar Jackson to boost its roster via recruiting. Just this week a Louisville board member said that Petrino’s $14 million buyout is a little too steep to pay, basically admitting the seat is cooling on Petrino for the time being despite his atrocious record this year.
Who’s the most dangerous challenger to Tua Tagovailoa’s Heisman campaign?
Staples: It’s either Tua’s knee or Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. If Tagovailoa can stay healthy the rest of the season and puts up numbers close to what he’s already put up, he’ll be in New York. The only question is whether he or Murray will raise the trophy. Through seven games, Tagovailoa is averaging an insane 14.3 yards per pass attempt. Murray is averaging an only slightly less insane 13.1 yards an attempt. For context, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield averaged 11.5 yards an attempt during his Heisman season last year, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota averaged 10 yards an attempt in 2014 and Florida State’s Jameis Winston averaged 10.6 in 2013. Murray has the edge on the ground with 377 rushing yards (6.6 yards a carry) and five rushing touchdowns. (Though Tagovailoa averages 4.7 yards a carry and has two rushing TDs, which is pretty good considering Alabama rarely needs him to run.)
Dellenger: Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins. The numbers for Haskins (2,331 yards, 24 TDs, 4 INTs) are as close to Tagovailoa as anyone (1,760 yards, 21 TDs, 0 INTs). The determining factor here might not be their numbers, but their team’s number of losses. Both players will get opportunities to perform in the bright spotlight and on the big stage to potentially keep their squads undefeated (Alabama vs. LSU, Ohio State vs. Michigan, SEC championship game, Big Ten championship game).
Niesen: Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins. He’s been incredible so far this year, and even if the Buckeyes lose at some point down the stretch, I imagine it’ll happen because of a defensive foible, not any kind of shortcoming from the quarterback.
Litman: The only player remotely close to challenging Tua Tagovailoa for the Heisman is Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins. In Ohio State’s win over Minnesota, Haskins became the first Buckeye to throw for 400 yards twice in his career. He had 412 yards passing with three touchdowns against the Gophers and 455 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions the previous week against Indiana. The sophomore is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country, completing 72.3% of his passes, and has thrown 28 touchdowns to just four interceptions in seven games this season.
Single: Kyler Murray. He almost singlehandedly saved the Red River Showdown, and now, with the defending Big 12 champs’ backs against the wall, he will continue to put up eye-popping numbers with increased stakes on every snap. Oklahoma’s porous defense gives Murray and the offense plenty of chances to score, and Texas’s rise into the top 10 means that the Sooners’ lone loss won’t doom their playoff résumé. Plus, in the narrative sense, the future Oakland A’s outfielder is the only standout player who can compete with the fact that Tagovailoa is doing something you almost never see in college football.
Axson: Kyler Murray. It’s simple, because as long as Oklahoma’s defense continues to play the way it has (and there is no reason to believe that it won’t, despite the dismissal of coordinator Mike Stoops), Murray will have ample opportunity to score each time he touches the ball. Also, his numbers (1,764 yards, 21 TDs, 377 rushing yards) are very comparable to Baker Mayfield’s Heisman-winning campaign last season.