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Forde-Yard Dash: Question Everyone You Believe In (Except Georgia)

The Dash looks at Oregon, Ohio State and more, emphasizing why there is reason to doubt college football's powerhouses.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Jeff Brohm Trick Play Bible sold separately in West Lafayette):

MORE DASH: Bad Week | Frost Returns | Upset Masters

FIRST QUARTER: QUESTION EVERYONE YOU BELIEVE IN

There was a fox on the field at Arizona State. Protesters on the field at Northwestern. A moose on the loose on the field the day before the game at South Dakota State. And many flawed football teams at points all across this great land of ours.

Summing up the season to date: there is Georgia (1), and there is everybody else. They are all subject to questioning, doubt and criticism in varying degrees.

There were so many lackluster performances from so many College Football Playoff contenders Saturday that they almost cancel each other out. Other than Michigan State, which succumbed to the top-five Venus flytrap that is Purdue, this was a weekend of muddle and struggle, survive and advance.

But someone has to be ranked No. 2–4 and beyond by the selection committee this Tuesday. Let’s run down the best of the non-Bulldogs, with an emphasis on why there is reason to doubt them:

Oregon (2). In truth, the Ducks (8–1) have weathered a plague of injuries and seem to be coming out of a three-week wobble (loss to Stanford, close wins over California and UCLA) in pretty solid shape. Beating Washington by 10 points on the road in a drenching rain should play just fine with the committee. After listening to Huskies coach Jimmy Lake take shots at Oregon’s academics, this was a satisfying win that allowed coach Mario Cristobal to roast the Ducks’ rivals postgame.

This is from Tyson Alger of the “I-5 Corridor,” a website that covers Oregon: “Those fucking guys right there,” Cristobal said of Washington, captured through multiple players’ live social media feeds, “they represent everything that’s wrong with football. So when you kick their ass, you let them know it.”

Alrighty then. Don’t let anyone tell you there is no such thing as good old-fashioned football hate on the West Coast.

But the Ducks can still be doubted.

The knock on Oregon: This is far from a dominant team. In a lackluster Pac-12, the Ducks’ average winning margin is 9.7 points. They have a minus-four turnover margin over the last five games. They lack a game-breaking receiving threat who can distort opposing coverage schemes, with just 12 passing plays of longer than 30 yards and three of 40-plus. And if they make the playoff, they likely will be facing an opponent that has been seasoned against tougher competition along the way.

The potential roadblock: A trip to Utah Nov. 20 looms as the biggest remaining challenge, with a possible rematch in the Pac-12 title game.

Ohio State (3). The Buckeyes (8–1) wheezed to victory at Nebraska, aided by the Cornhuskers’ continued special teams atrocities (two missed field goals and a 13-yard punt that set up a short touchdown drive). While Nebraska has played close games against a number of good opponents, this remains a 3–7 team that trailed Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue by double digits in the fourth quarter before tacking on late, cosmetic touchdowns to make the losses appear closer than they were.

The knock on Ohio State: Finishing drives with touchdowns. The last 10 times the Buckeyes have had the ball in the Red Zone, they have produced just two touchdowns, along with seven field goals and turning it over on downs once. That’s 32 plays for just 63 yards. Too much Noah Ruggles, not enough of everyone else. Quarterback C.J. Stroud is a great talent having a great season, but he still can have freshman moments at key points. Ohio State has improved defensively, but still isn’t great in the secondary, with a pass defense that is middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

The potential roadblock: There are no easy games remaining. First up is giant killer Purdue in the Horseshoe, then Michigan State, then Michigan.

Cincinnati (4). The Bearcats (9–0) remain undefeated but were extremely shaky late against Tulsa. (Everyone was extremely shaky late in that game; both teams and the officials, who couldn’t seem to spot the ball correctly.) If Golden Hurricane quarterback Davis Brin sells out for the end zone instead of inexplicably going down inside the 1, Tulsa would have had a two-point conversion for the tie and potential win in overtime.

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At a time when Cincinnati needs style points, it has been in survival mode. That opens the door for a committee (and a nation) predisposed to disrespecting the non-establishment teams to keep doing so.

The knock on Cincinnati: The Bearcats have stopped winning the line of scrimmage. They have been doubled up in rushing yards in the last three games, averaging 111.7 and surrendering 225.3. The 297 rushing yards by Tulsa was the most Cincy has allowed since Luke Fickell’s fourth game on the job, in September 2017. And if leading rusher Jerome Ford remains out after being injured against Tulsa, the Bearcats’ own running game will be compromised.

The potential roadblock: SMU (7–2) comes to town Nov. 20, but the bigger threat might be a possible American Athletic Conference championship game against one-loss Houston.

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Alabama (5). Of all the unexpected struggles Saturday, none was more surprising than the sight of the Crimson Tide sleepwalking at home against LSU. If Max Johnson were a more decisive quarterback, the Tigers might have pulled one of the biggest upsets in years in the SEC. Nick Saban did his best to sound upbeat afterward, calling it “a great win for our team.” Which, in Sabanspeak, indicates that he might be a bit worried about his team’s confidence and psyche, feeling a need to build them up.

The knock on Alabama: An offense lacking fire and physicality ran for six yards against LSU, the lowest total for a Saban-coached Bama team and tied for the lowest by any Crimson Tide team since 1940, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com. This Alabama team has a couple of overwhelming individual talents, but not an overwhelming unit. They do not have the best offense or defense in the SEC, or even in the SEC West. And there doesn’t seem to be the customary, consistent hyper focus of great Saban teams.

The potential roadblock: Every third game, Alabama throws in a clunker—the narrow escape against Florida, the loss to Texas A&M, the slog past LSU. Next up in the sequence is the Iron Bowl at Auburn Nov. 27.

Michigan State (6). The Spartans (8–1) walked into a trap everyone saw coming at Purdue, powerless to stop the Boilermakers (or even come close). Mel Tucker’s team has probably been scraping its ceiling for weeks, with losses (plural) inevitable. For now, deciding where to slot Michigan State now becomes tricky. Should it remain ahead of Michigan, which it beat (controversially and dramatically at home) and has the same record? Or should the only team in the CFP top eight with a double-digit loss drop below the Wolverines? Welcome to the muddle, Spartans.

The knock on Michigan State: Purdue was a disastrous matchup for a team with a bad pass defense. The Spartans came into the game last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed, then gave up 536 more to the Boilermakers. It’s hard to wallpaper over deficiencies in the secondary without a killer pass rush, and Michigan State has just two sacks in the past two games against opponents who dropped back 102 times.

The potential roadblock: Michigan State’s three remaining three opponents rank in the top four in the Big Ten in passing yards. So they’re all roadblocks. But Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 20 looms as the most obvious.

Michigan (7). The Wolverines (8–1) got the best present possible for a Big Ten team coming off a dispiriting rivalry loss: Indiana. The Hoosiers are beaten down and starting their third quarterback of the year, a freshman. This was the get-well game they needed.

The knock on Michigan: Do they have the firepower to win against what’s coming up, most notably The Nemesis from Columbus? Like Ohio State, a few too many drives are ending in field goals instead of touchdowns. The Wolverines have attempted 20 field goals in Big Ten play (making 18) and scored 20 TDs.

The potential roadblock: Before even getting to Ohio State, Michigan must go to Penn State Saturday, a place where it has lost five of its last six.

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Oklahoma (8). The Sooners (9–0) got as reality slap from the CFP committee by being ranked eighth, then might have had the best weekend of anyone in the CFP top ten by not playing. Let everyone else show off their flaws while the Sooners had a week to work on fixing theirs.

The knock on Oklahoma: The expected leap forward on defense hasn’t happened. In conference play, the Sooners are allowing 6.4 yards per play, which is 105th nationally. They have just eight sacks in conference play, and half of those came against Texas. Caleb Williams has energized the offense, but he’s about to face some tougher defenses.

The potential roadblock: Remaining opponents Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State have a combined 21–6 record. This is an opportunity for the Sooners to improve their CFP standing, but they’ll have to play better than they have been.

Notre Dame (9). The Fighting Irish (8–1) keep grinding out victories, getting a little better in the process, with September victories over Purdue and Wisconsin improving with age. They throttled the Navy option Saturday in one of their easiest victories of the year.

The knock on Notre Dame: Playing behind a pedestrian offensive line by Irish standards, they haven’t been able to concoct an abundance of explosive plays. (Wideout Kevin Austin to the contrary.) Quarterback Jack Coan has meshed with his surrounding cast as the season has gone along, but no opponent in a playoff setting would be scared by what he brings to the table.

The potential roadblock: The game at Virginia Saturday looms as Notre Dame’s toughest remaining test.

Oklahoma State (10). The Cowboys (8–1) keep grinding out wins, most of them unspectacular, riding a very good defense and just enough offense. Most recently Mike Gundy continued his mastery in Morgantown, winning his fourth straight there against West Virginia.

The knock on Oklahoma State: This is by no means a classic Gundy offense, spreading the field and lighting up the scoreboard. The Cowboys have produced just 10 plays of 30 yards or more, failing to stretch defenses. Quarterback Spencer Sanders has thrown for more than 185 yards just twice this season.

The potential roadblock: The Bedlam game against Oklahoma is in Stillwater, but Gundy has been dominated by the Sooners in this rivalry. The Pokes have won just two of the last 18 meetings.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

How The Dash would select and seed the playoff if today were Selection Sunday:

Orange Bowl: top seed Georgia vs. fourth seed Cincinnati.

Cotton Bowl: second seed Oregon vs. third seed Ohio State.

Dropped out: Michigan State.

Also considered: Alabama. 

MORE DASH: Bad Week | Frost Returns | Upset Masters

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