In a single day, the Big Ten went from late to the party to life of the party.
The league finally started the season this weekend, and immediately contributed new levels of entertainment value and shock value. Rutgers (!) never trailed at Michigan State while breaking a 21-game conference losing streak and getting the Greg Schiano Era 2.0 off to a roaring start. Purdue upset Iowa without its head coach (Jeff Brohm) and its best player (Rondale Moore). And Indiana upset Penn State in the wildest, most dramatic game of the season to date, with a Michael Penix lunge to the goal line providing the slimmest margin of sudden victory.
The Hoosiers had the game all but won, then had it all but lost, then pulled it out with a gutsy decision to go for two in overtime. Indiana coach Tom Allen, who was an Indianapolis high school head coach 14 years ago, outfoxed $5.65 million-a-year man James Franklin to pull out IU’s first win over a top 10 team since the 1980s. (The Hoosiers broke a 41-game losing streak against top 10 opponents, the longest streak in the history of the AP Poll, which began in 1936.)
Down by a point with less than 90 seconds left and with only one timeout, Allen ordered his defense to let Penn State score—and the Nittany Lions foolishly obliged, giving Indiana a chance to tie. Penix led a do-or-die drive for a touchdown and tying two-pointer that forced OT.
After Penn State scored first, Indiana answered and Allen decided to end the game right there, win or lose. Penix’s full-body stretch was rewarded by the on-field call that he reached the goal line—which might not have been correct, but was too close to overturn on review. In the largely forgettable history of Indiana football, that play ranks as an all-timer.
"One play to win it,” Allen said afterward. “And we'd been close. And I'm sick and tired of being close."
The Big Ten also produced three immediate Top 10 party crashers: Ohio State, as expected, after rolling past Nebraska; Wisconsin, which blew out Illinois Friday night behind a brilliant quarterback debut; and Michigan, which may have its best quarterback fit of the Jim Harbaugh Era. (Sports Illustrated has not been ranking teams before they played a game.)
The only downside to the day from a Big Ten perspective is that the surprise in Bloomington took the helium out of Ohio State at Penn State on Halloween night. Now the only matchup of unbeatens next Saturday is... Indiana at Rutgers. Just like we all figured.
On to the Top 10:
1. Alabama (5-0)
Last game: Beat Tennessee, 48-17
Next game: Mississippi State Saturday
The worst news of the weekend came from the Crimson Tide’s annual bludgeoning of the Volunteers: star receiver Jaylen Waddle’s season is over after breaking his ankle returning the opening kickoff. The most exciting player in the college game is gone, and we’ll see what kind of hole that leaves in Alabama’s powerful offense. Despite that loss, the Tide moves up to No. 1 because Clemson found itself in a brief second-half struggle against a truly awful Syracuse team. The ‘Bama defense has now strung together six straight solid quarters, allowing 17 points and 448 yards in that span. Alabama’s winning streak against SEC East opponents has now reached 29, dating back more than a decade. Which is mind boggling.
2. Clemson (6-0)
Last game: Beat Syracuse, 47-21
Next game: Boston College Saturday
The Tigers and Crimson Tide remain interchangeable at the top, with Clemson taking a back seat for the moment for having the temerity not to obliterate Syracuse. The score was 27-21 in the third quarter and the Orange actually had two possessions with a chance to take the lead, but the second of those ended with a sack-fumble-touchdown play that ended any chance of a truly apocalyptic upset. Dabo Swinney was a bit cranky afterward with questions about his team’s lackluster performance: "I just want to make sure I'm at the right press conference here. We did win the game, I think.” But that’s life with high expectations. The world is accustomed to seeing Clemson destroy the dregs of the ACC, and this destruction didn’t go as planned.
3. Ohio State (1-0)
Last game: Beat Nebraska, 52-17
Next game: At Penn State Saturday
After watching Trevor Lawrence hog the headlines, Justin Fields threw his hat back into the Heisman Trophy ring very quickly. Fields was exceptional: 20 of 21 for 276 yards and two touchdowns passing, plus 54 yards and a TD running. The Buckeyes are rebuilding a bit defensively and it showed early, as the Cornhuskers drove for two touchdowns in the first quarter-and-a-half and tied the game at 14. But Ohio State tightened up on that side of the ball (including scoring a defensive touchdown) and showcased its vast offensive arsenal. Ryan Day apologized for scoring a touchdown in the final 20 seconds with his backups, but it’s Nebraska’s job to stop that, not his.
4. Georgia (3-1)
Last game: Lost to Alabama Oct. 17
Next game: At Kentucky Saturday
Does J.T. Daniels make his Georgia debut in Lexington? Kirby Smart said midweek, “I feel great” about Stetson Bennett at quarterback, but that isn’t the same as locking him in at the position. Smart said USC transfer Daniels, Bennett and D’Wan Mathis all would get reps during this off week. This would seem to be the time to get Daniels up to speed—and even if he doesn’t start against Kentucky, he could be called off the bench if Bennett struggles at all.
5. Notre Dame (5-0)
Last game: Beat Pittsburgh, 45-3
Next game: At Georgia Tech Saturday
The Fighting Irish played their best game of the season in routing the Panthers, who were without quarterback Kenny Pickett but also saw their defense routed by a freshly explosive Notre Dame passing game. The Irish were last in the ACC by a considerable margin in passing plays of 20 yards or more, with just eight—then they produced six of them against Pitt. That included a 73-yard touchdown pass to Northwestern transfer Ben Skowronek. One thing that remains rock solid for the Irish: their defense, which now is allowing fewer than 10 points per game.
6. Wisconsin (1-0)
Last game: Beat Illinois Friday, 45-7
Next game: At Nebraska Saturday
Say hello to Graham Mertz, whose starting debut was one incompletion short of perfect. He’s was 20 of 21 for 248 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions—a cool 273.01 efficiency rating. The redshirt freshman was the highest-rated quarterback recruit in school history, but it took a Jack Coan foot injury for him to get his starting chance. (That injury may have bailed out Paul Chryst from a QB decision that someday would have lived in infamy.) Wisconsin might be more of a running-back-by-committee offense than usual, but that can work just fine with a playmaker at quarterback.
7. BYU (5-0)
Last game: Beat Texas State, 52-14
Next game: Western Kentucky Saturday
The best show in the West rolled on Saturday night, with the Cougars blasting Texas State and adding another layer of shine to quarterback Zach Wilson’s Heisman resume. Wilson finished with 287 yards passing and 4 touchdowns, and he added a reception for 16 yards on a reverse pass. The problem for BYU: beating a 1-6 Texas State team does nothing for the resume, and neither would beating Western Kentucky next week. Boise State looms Nov. 6 as a hugely important game, and perhaps San Diego State way off in the distance on Dec. 12.
8. Michigan (1-0)
Last game: Beat Minnesota, 49-24
Next game: Michigan State Saturday
This was an impressive victory, enough to stoke the annual temptation to believe in the Wolverines. There are some caveats here—Minnesota is rebuilding on defense and was down several key players on special teams and the offensive line—but Michigan was also legitimately good. This marked another notable starting debut for a Big Ten quarterback: Joe Milton. The big sophomore was 15 of 22 passing for 225 yards and a touchdown, plus 52 rushing yards and another TD. This was methodical Michigan: 56 total plays, 31 runs and 25 passes, balanced and in command.
9. Cincinnati (3-0)
Last game: Beat SMU, 42-13
Next game: Memphis Saturday
This was the Bearcats’ best performance of the season, a total team effort that came 21 days after their last game due to COVID-19 issues. Quarterback Desmond Ridder hadn’t been sharp yet this season, but he put it together in Dallas: 305 yards rushing and passing and four touchdowns, including a 91-yard run late in the game not long after throwing up on the field. Cincinnati’s defense remains one of the better ones in the nation, repeatedly making plays that kept SMU out of the end zone. The secondary is legit.
10. Oklahoma State (4-0)
Last game: Beat Iowa State, 24-21
Next game: Texas Saturday
Oklahoma State kept alive Big 12 playoff hopes and strengthened its stance as the top team in the league (pending a showdown with Kansas State Nov. 7.) The Cowboys got quarterback Spencer Sanders back for the first time since the first quarter of the first game, and it paid immediate dividends. Sanders’s running and throwing added another weapon to complement running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace, and the best defense in the Big 12 deconstructed an Iowa State passing game that had been hitting its stride.