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Forde-Yard Dash: Five Conference Title Games New Faces Could Crash

Will it be same old, same old winning the Big Ten East, SEC West, ACC Atlantic and more? Here's why the usual roadblocks are vulnerable.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where Central Michigan put in a 19-hour day to take a beating from LSU:

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THIRD QUARTER: ROADBLOCKS CRUMBLING?

For those fatigued by the steel-trap status quo of several Power 5 conference races in recent years, this is an exciting time. There are challengers to what have been immovable roadblocks. Either the roadblock has weakened or those trying to get through it are stronger—whatever the case, it’s not absurd as of today to foresee some new logos in conference championship games come December. The Dash takes a look at five such situations:

Big Ten East

The impediment: Ohio State (21). The Buckeyes (2–1) have won the division four years in a row and have not lost to a Big Ten East opponent since 2016. But they’re a shaky 2–1 right now, beaten convincingly by Oregon and having trailed both Minnesota and winless Tulsa in their two victories. This is a team operating below its individual talent level. While Ohio State could well put it together and end up dominating again, the rest of the division isn’t in awe of the scarlet and gray.

The top challenger: Penn State. The Nittany Lions (3–0) have played the toughest schedule in the division to date, winning at Wisconsin and beating Auburn in Happy Valley. They are giving up the fewest yards per play in the conference (4.19) and have allowed the fewest scrimmage plays of 20 yards or longer per game (2.3). With a coalescing core of playmakers on offense, James Franklin’s team may have the goods to end a four-year losing streak to Ohio State.

Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. hypes the fans vs Auburn

Best of the rest: While Michigan’s 3–0 start has drawn more attention—people get excited easily by the Wolverines—Michigan State (22) has been the more impressive 3–0 team from the state. The Spartans have two road wins against P5 competition, dominating both Northwestern and Miami. Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker III is the nation’s leading rusher at 164 yards per game. Quarterback Payton Thorne hasn’t thrown an interception in 77 attempts.

Still, give Michigan credit for trampling three straight teams and looking good while doing so. And Rutgers, 3–0 for the first time since 2012. And Maryland, also 3–0, with a Big Ten road win on the ledger. The division offers no walkover opponents to Ohio State or anyone else.

ACC Atlantic

The impediment: Clemson (23). Nobody has toyed with a division more than the Tigers in recent years. Clemson has captured the Atlantic six straight seasons and has won 16 straight against teams from that division, most of them wipeouts. Yet the Clemson of 2021 is a laborious offensive entity, short on big plays, failing to get much push up front and (for once) not dazzling at the quarterback position. White-knuckling past Georgia Tech is not something Clemson fans are accustomed to. The previous three seasons, the Tigers averaged between 6.7 and 6.9 plays of 20 yards or longer from scrimmage; this year it’s 2.7.

The top challenger: Are you ready for some Wake Forest (24)? Yeah, that takes some getting used to, especially when factoring in Clemson’s 12-year winning streak against the Demon Deacons. (It’s been a decade since Wake finished within single digits of the Tigers.) But this is a promising team, with an experienced offensive line and some potency in the passing game and ballhawks in the secondary (six interceptions thus far). The Deacons have long failed to measure up in the trenches against Clemson, but they’ve got a chance this year.

Best of the rest: Both Louisville and North Carolina State were thumped by SEC opponents. Boston College lost quarterback Phil Jurkovec for the rest of the season to injury. But go with the Wolfpack here, who gets the first Atlantic shot at Clemson this Saturday in Raleigh. NC State historically disappoints when expectations rise; keep an eye on this game.

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Big 12

The impediment: Oklahoma (25). The last team to win the Big 12 championship game other than the Sooners was Texas in 2009. That’s a slightly fake stat, since there were no Big 12 championship games from 2011–16, but still—Oklahoma has won the five that were played. Nobody is inflated with more top-25 helium than the Sooners, who are ranked No. 4 in the AP poll despite doing nothing of consequence thus far. They beat Tulane by 35 fewer points than did Mississippi, and beat Nebraska by one fewer point than did a bad Illinois. Factor out a 76–0 rout of an FCS opponent, and there isn’t anything to love about this team yet.

The top challenger: The line starts with Kansas State (26), because the Wildcats have beaten Oklahoma two years in a row and are off to a pretty stout 3–0 start. K-State dominated Stanford in its opener, and the Cardinal have since gone 2–0. K-State also pulled away from a good Nevada team in the fourth quarter Saturday, winning by 21. If Chris Klieman’s team can run the ball and dictate terms offensively, it can beat anyone in the league.

Best of the rest: This is still Iowa State, despite the brontosaurus egg the Cyclones laid at home against Iowa. Under Matt Campbell, ISU usually gets better as the season progresses. Don’t sleep on TCU (2–0) and possibly Texas, which always gets up for Red River. Oklahoma State (3–0) is overdue to lose.

SEC West

The impediment: Alabama. In case you hadn’t noticed. The Crimson Tide are working on a ridiculous streak of 48 straight quarters without so much as trailing in a game … but they flirted with defeat at Florida Saturday. And that’s without Gators x-factor backup quarterback Anthony Richardson playing. If Alabama can be gashed for 258 rushing yards in a game, as Florida did, that will have the attention of the Western Division.

Ole Miss QB Matt Corral heads his team on to the field

The top challenger: Mississippi (27). While the Rebels’ passing game and quarterback Matt Corral have justifiably gotten most of the attention, keep in mind that Ole Miss’s 145 rushing attempts lead the SEC. It can move the ball with balance and keep defenses guessing. Most important to the Rebels’ bid for renewed relevance is the improvement on defense. If that holds up, this is a dangerous team.

Best of the rest: Texas A&M (28). People are hyperventilating about the Aggies’ defense, with some justification. But they haven’t yet faced an offense with actual weaponry, and they will in league play. Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State will not be pushovers, either. There is no soft Saturday in the West.

SEC East

The impediment: Georgia. No, the Bulldogs did not win the East last year. But they did win it the previous three years and came into this season prohibitively favored to do it again. Now, through no fault of its own, the gap between Georgia and its closest pursuer appears to be smaller than it did in August.

The top challenger: Florida (29). Give it up to the Gators and Dan Mullen, who lost a lot from last year’s East champs and still look very strong after pushing Alabama to the brink Saturday. They’re second nationally in yards per carry (7.68) but need to make strides in the passing game. Mullen has won 12 of his last 13 against SEC East opponents, losing only to Georgia in 2019.

Best of the rest: Kentucky (30). Kentucky reverted to old form Saturday against Chattanooga, failing to take a double-digit underdog seriously and being pushed to the end. Prior to that dud, the Wildcats showcased their new offensive explosiveness from receivers Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali, plus the running of Chris Rodriguez Jr. behind a physical offensive line. The proving ground comes Oct. 2–16, when Kentucky plays Florida, LSU and Georgia in succession.

MORE DASH: Struggling QBs | Top QBs Profile | USC Stock Watch