SI Top 10: Big Ten's Wobbly Week Gives Hope to Next Tier of Contenders

Ohio State may be shut out of the Big Ten championship and Northwestern suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday. Which teams could benefit?
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When the greatest active coach in college football cannot participate in his No. 1-ranked team’s rivalry game, you would assume that is the dominant headline of the weekend—any weekend. But on the same day Nick Saban missed the Iron Bowl after testing positive for COVID-19, a woman played in a Southeastern Conference game and a MAC running back tied the NCAA single-game record with eight rushing touchdowns.

This 2020 season can’t stop, won’t stop, with the story angles.

Sarah Fuller etched her name into history as the first woman to play in a Power 5 conference game, kicking off for Vanderbilt against Missouri and then charming the socks off everyone after the game. At the same time, Buffalo’s diminutive Jaret Patterson was shredding Kent State for 409 rushing yards (second-most in FBS history) and those eight TDs. Patterson also now has 710 rushing yards in his last two games, which is assuredly an FBS record.

Buffalo Bulls Running Back Jaret Patterson (41) runs with the ball for a touchdown during the first half of the College Football game between Kent State Golden Flashes and the Buffalo Bulls on November 28, 2020, at UB Stadium in Amherst, NY.

Buffalo Bulls running back Jaret Patterson runs with the ball for a touchdown during the first half against the Kent State Golden Flashes.

There were other momentous happenings during this holiday weekend, as a pair of undefeated teams were swept aside. Oregon was upset by rival Oregon State, dealing a likely death blow to the Pac-12’s already slim College Football Playoff hopes. (The Ducks were only 15th in the first CFP rankings, which tells you how far that league had to go just to get into contention.) Northwestern’s late-starting, low-scoring winning formula fell apart in an upset loss to a bad Michigan State team, likely ejecting the Wildcats from playoff consideration unless they win out.

The Northwestern loss couples with Ohio State’s COVID-19-related game cancellation at Illinois to put the Big Ten into further turmoil. The Buckeyes (4-0) would likely be eliminated from conference title eligibility if they missed another game, and many teams that have a one-week virus problem ultimately have a two-week virus problem. Within the Big Ten, both Wisconsin and Maryland missed consecutive weeks.

If Ohio State can’t play Saturday against Michigan State, it will be looking at a five-game regular season that almost certainly precludes a spot in the title game. Then it would be up to the selection committee to decide whether a team that plays about half as many games as its prime competitors is worthy of a playoff spot.

But as Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith pointed out on a zoom call Saturday morning, football concerns are not foremost in Columbus this weekend. “Last thing on my mind,” Smith said, when asked about the possible permutations involved in playing for Big Ten and national championships.

One other Big Ten storyline: Penn State (1-5) won a game for the first time in 2020. That should make the team it beat, Michigan (2-4), feel even worse than it already does about a miserable season in Ann Arbor.

On to the Top Ten:

1. Alabama

Last game: beat Auburn, 42-13
Next game: at LSU Saturday

Nick Saban watching the Iron Bowl at home had to have been an all-time stresser for his wife, Terry, who normally gets to watch Alabama games from a luxury box and well-removed from her high-intensity husband. “I sat here and felt a little helpless, but I could see things and yell at things, listen to Mrs. Terry cheer downstairs,” Saban said. “It is a little different. It still feels good to win.”

Saban watched his Crimson Tide offensive juggernaut roll on, posting a 21st consecutive game scoring at least 35 points — and NCAA record. Receiver DeVonta Smith continued his spectacular play since running mate Jaylen Waddle was injured against Tennessee; in the past three games Smith has 27 catches for 518 yards and eight touchdowns. Meanwhile, the continued evolution of Alabama’s defense has made the Tide a complete team and ended any serious debate about who is No. 1.

2. Notre Dame

Last game: beat North Carolina, 31-17
Next game: Syracuse Saturday

The Fighting Irish gave up 14 points in the first 12 minutes at North Carolina Friday, spurring thoughts of a Tar Heels ambush. But defensive coordinator Clark Lea dialed in his adjustments thereafter and limited UNC to just three points the rest of the game as Notre Dame rolled to 9-0. The pet phrase in the sport these days is “complementary football,” and the Irish are playing that—offense, defense and special teams working on concert. The only real concern about Notre Dame the first few weeks was whether the offense was explosive enough, but the Irish have steadily added to their roster of playmakers as the season has progressed. This marked a sixth straight game racking up more than 425 yards total offense.

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3. Clemson

Last game: beat Pittsburgh, 52-17
Next game: at Virginia Tech Saturday

This was the first time we’ve seen the Tigers since losing to Notre Dame Nov. 7, and the first time we’ve seen star quarterback Trevor Lawrence since Oct. 24. Lawrence’s month-plus COVID sabbatical did not diminish his skills—he was 26-of-37 for 403 passing yards, the second-highest total of his career—and as expected, a pent-up Clemson pounced quickly on an overmatched opponent. The score of this one was 31-0 in the first quarter, the highest-scoring first quarter in school history. Clemson also joined Florida State’s 2013 national championship squad as the only ACC teams ever to score 34 or more points in each of the first nine games of a season.

4. Ohio State

Last game: beat Indiana, 42-35, Nov. 21
Next game: at Michigan State Saturday

This is where the intrigue lies going forward. Can the Buckeyes play their last two regular-season games, and if so, with how many players and coaches? Team doctor Jim Borchers said Saturday morning that Ohio State surpassed the Big Ten’s 7.5 percent positive-rate threshold for its team population, which numbers 170 people—that means least 13 positives among players, coaches and staff. Presumably that rate will need to decrease below the threshold for Ohio State to play at Michigan State Saturday, although athletic director Gene Smith said his team could have taken the field at Illinois as scheduled. “Could we have played? Sure,” Smith said. “Was it the right thing to play? No.” For his part, coach Ryan Day said his team can have adequate prep for the Spartans with a full practice Thursday and a walk-through Friday. We’ll see whether Ohio State can meet that bare-minimum preparation deadline.

5. Cincinnati

Last game: beat Central Florida 36-33, Nov. 21
Next game: at Tulsa Dec. 12

The Bearcats’ game at Temple was canceled. While playing the 1-6 Owls would not have helped Cincy’s strength of schedule, it lost the potential for earning style points with a big win at a time when some playoff competitors were struggling. Clearing Northwestern out of the unbeaten ranks helps Cincinnati, which ultimately could wind up in a playoff resumé battle with a second team from the SEC or a second from the ACC. The Bearcats need to root for an upset loss or two in those conferences.

6. Texas A&M

Last game: beat LSU, 20-7
Next game: at Auburn Saturday

The Aggies nearly had their first shutout of the Jimbo Fisher Era, but the Tigers scored in the final minute on a rainy Saturday night in College Station. Still, A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko has really started to dial in his unit, holding the past two opponents to a total of 10 points while recording five takeaways. That defensive performance helped offset an ugly game from mercurial quarterback Kellen Mond (11-of-34 for 105 yards, but no turnovers for the third straight game). The Aggies’ more reliable offensive performer continues to be running back Isaiah Spiller, who racked up 141 rushing yards on 27 carries against LSU.

7. Florida

Last game: beat Kentucky, 34-10
Next game: at Tennessee Saturday

The dominant image from the Gators’ victory Saturday was head coach Dan Mullen ripping into defensive coordinator Todd Grantham during the first half, when the Gators could not stop Kentucky from methodically monopolizing the ball. Grantham eventually returned fire in a yelling match that kept going for a while, perhaps underscoring Mullen’s frustration with a defense that has not played particularly well this season. Mullen deflected a question about it afterward with a joke: "I'll be honest with you," Mullen said, not being honest in the slightest. "I got home from Thanksgiving dinner. We're neighbors. He had his Christmas lights up on the front door. I said. 'We don't put Christmas lights up until after Thanksgiving.' He was adamant that, 'Yes, we do.' So we agreed to disagree.” The disagreements subsided in a second half that saw Grantham’s defense shut out Kentucky, while tight end Kyle Pitts returned from injury to catch three touchdowns.

8. BYU

Last game: beat North Alabama, 66-14, Nov. 21
Next game: San Diego State Dec. 12

The Cougars are in the Twilight Zone, not playing an FBS opponent for several weeks. An attempt to quickly schedule a game against Washington fell through, with both programs basically pointing the finger at the other for not making it work. (This is universally true in scheduling disagreements, not just on-the-fly COVID scheduling.) As of now, BYU remains a very good team without enough good games on its schedule, and after being stuck with a No. 14 ranking in the first CFP standings, playoff hopes are a telescoping long shot.

9. Indiana

Last game: beat Maryland, 27-11
Next game: at Wisconsin Saturday

The Hoosiers survived the worst career start for quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a struggle that ended with a leg injury in the third quarter. Penix’s status will be evaluated after “some more tests, figure it out,” coach Tom Allen said after the slog past Maryland. Indiana’s special season isn’t likely to gain any additional altitude without Penix, especially with Wisconsin next on the schedule, but it can take heart in winning this one largely without him. Indiana pounded out 230 yards on the ground and produced three more defensive takeaways, giving the Hoosiers defense a whopping 16 interceptions on the season.

10. Miami

Last game: beat Virginia Tech, 25-24, Nov. 14
Next game: North Carolina Dec. 12

The Hurricanes currently are looking at what might be the longest gap between games of any ranked team this season, going from Nov. 14 to Dec. 12 after their game scheduled for Dec. 5 against Wake Forest was canceled Saturday. Miami still could have an outside shot at the ACC championship game, but it needs losses from Clemson and/or Notre Dame and it needs to play some more games. Check back to see whether the ACC finds an opponent for Miami next Saturday in its now-weekly reshuffling of the schedule.