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Five questions

Q. Is the Big 12 suddenly teetering on the brink of being on the outside looking in for the College Football Playoffs?

Oklahoma’s 38-35 loss to Kansas State was like a gut punch to the league (remember, the Wildcats lost their opener to Arkansas State) and Texas’ great escape against Texas Tech in OT created more questions than answers about the Longhorns. The problem, of course, is that defense is an afterthought in the conference. That’s what could – emphasis on could – make Oklahoma State dangerous in the league this year, since the Cowboys are one of the few Big 12 teams playing any semblance of defense. OSU’s defense might even be good enough to overcome a bland offense centered around a suddenly-average Chuba Hubbard.

But if the Big 12 can’t produce an unbeaten team it may be watching the playoffs from afar. Right now it’s a league that lacks a standard bearer.

Q. Is anyone really surprised by Mike Leach’s immediate impact in the SEC?

This is what Leach does best. He comes in and shakes things up with his Air Raid offense and the results are often immediate and impressive. So no matter what the oddsmakers thought, Mississippi State’s 44-34 victory over reigning national champion LSU isn’t the shocker so many have made it out to be. Leach has a proven QB in K.J. Costello. LSU is still trying to find its identity after losing 14 players to the NFL Draft and being forced to go without its best defensive player. The Bulldogs could be the SEC’s biggest surprise this year – but they will also suffer a loss or two that is downright confounding. It’s the nature of Leach’s offense.

Q. How many well-heeled TCU supporters (and bettors) would like to give head coach Gary Patterson a piece of their mind right now?

Talk about a brutal beat: Iowa State, favored by 2½ points over TCU, had a nine-point lead when the Horned Frogs scored on a 31-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play to get within three. Because there was no time left and the extra point did not affect the outcome of the game, Patterson elected not to kick it, taking his team to the locker room instead.

A made extra point there means TCU covers. Not even attempting the easiest scoring play in football meant Iowa State covered instead.

Q. Is UCF still the most likely Group of 5 team to crash the College Football Playoffs – if one can, that is?

Good luck trying to keep pace with this Dillon Gabriel-led offense. In Saturday’s 51-28 rout of East Carolina, Gabriel threw for 408 yards and four touchdowns, becoming UCF’s first quarterback to have consecutive 400-yard-plus passing games. At one point, the sophomore completed 18 straight passes. After rolling up 660 yards of total offense in the opener against Georgia Tech UCF had 623 Saturday.

The Knights’ biggest obstacle to an unbeaten season comes Nov. 21 at home against Cincinnati. UCF could wind up hosting the AAC title game too.

Q. Has any school had a fall from national prominence that is quicker and more dramatic than Florida State’s?

Hard to believe it was just seven years ago that the Seminoles won a national championship. They’re a combined 18-22 the past four years following Saturday’s 52-10 loss to rival Miami – the Hurricanes’ largest margin of victory in the series since 1976. It sure seemed as if the program had recovered from the malaise of Bobby Bowden’s final five years (a combined record of 38-27 then) when Jimbo Fisher produce seasons of 10 wins or more from 2012 to 2016. But this looks to be rock bottom for Florida State.

The only comparable fall from grace nationally might be Nebraska, which is 13-23 the past three seasons. But the Cornhuskers are a long way from their recent prominence (consecutive national titles in 1994-95) and haven’t finished in the Top 10 since 2001. So the program has been out of the national spotlight for a while.

On the rise

Miami (3-0)

Again. And still. There’s a different vibe about this Hurricanes’ team, with the calming influence and experience of QB D’Eriq King a huge factor in that. Is Manny Diaz’ club good enough to give Clemson a scare? Hurricanes have a bye, then visit the Tigers Oct. 10.

Kansas State (1-1)

If the Wildcats played Oklahoma every week they might be national title contenders. A year after stunning the Sooners 48-41 they recorded their first road win over a top three AP team with Saturday’s 38-35 upset of OU. That was with a roster depleted by COVID-19. And after losing to Arkansas State.

Mississippi State (1-0)

Pretty impressive debut for the Mike Leach era in Starkville. Air Raid made its presence felt immediately in the SEC and will be a handful to deal with down the road. Will it be enough to make inroads this year in the rugged SEC West? We’ll see.

On the decline

Duke (0-3)

After the school’s worst start since opening 0-6 in 2010 Blue Devils are considering yanking error-prone QB Chase Brice. It’s getting ugly in Durham.

Louisville (1-2)

Where to begin with the Cardinals? Their offensive line is a sieve, their defense only plays when the mood strikes and QB Malik Cunningham is so wildly inconsistent and mistake-prone that he is now hurting this offense despite his obvious physical abilities.

Kansas (0-2)

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Remember those signs of progress Les Miles seemed to make last year in Lawrence? Well, forget them. Saturday’s 47-14 loss to Baylor was more of the same old bad Jayhawks, with the real possibility that a winless season awaits. That’s hard to do in a mediocre league, too.

Who’s hot

K.J. Costello, QB, Mississippi State

He made a few mistakes – anyone would after an arm-wearying 60 pass attempts – but the Stanford transfer set an SEC record with 623 passing yards (and five TD passes) in his first start for Mike Leach.

Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas

The senior was good when it mattered most, rallying the Longhorns from a 56-41 deficit with 3:13 to play to force OT and then threw the game-winning TD in the extra session. That was his fifth TD pass in the 63-56 victory over Texas Tech. He also ran for a score.

Nate Snyder, PK, Louisiana

After missing three of four field goals in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first two games he connected on a 53-yarder as time expired for a 20-18 victory that kept Louisiana unbeaten at 3-0. Snyder is just 3-for-7 on FGs this year, but no one at Louisiana is counting any more. He made the one that mattered.

Who’s not

Malik Cunningham, QB, Louisville

Maybe it’s time to give him a break and let someone else try this quarterbacking thing at Louisville. His line from Saturday’s 23-20 loss to Pitt: 9-of-21 for 107 yards with three interceptions and three rushing yards on 13 carries.

Jeff Sims, QB, Georgia Tech

The future looks promising for the ultra-talented freshman. The present? Not so good. He threw four more interceptions in a 37-20 loss to Syracuse, giving him eight already this season.

Chris Ash, defensive coordinator, Texas

The worst head coach in Rutgers history made his debut as the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator in predictable fashion: Texas missed a slew of tackles and was roughed up for five touchdown passes and 56 points by Texas Tech.

Playing it forward

Previewing the top games coming up this weekend (All times Eastern)

TCU at Texas, Noon, Fox

Horned Frogs hinted at better things to come, especially defensively, in the opening game loss to Iowa State. Texas just needs to keep winning shootouts to take advantage of the sudden opening atop the Big 12 standings.

Texas A&M at Alabama, 3:30, CBS

Aggies limped through an opening game win over Vanderbilt but they do have a veteran quarterback and the potential to be a thorn in the SEC West race. Tide will be back home and looking to flex its offensive muscle.

North Carolina at Boston College, 3:30 ABC

Tar Heels have enough firepower to be a factor in the ACC race (after Clemson, of course). Eagles are 2-0 after an escape against Texas State but look to be improved.

Memphis at SMU, 3:30, ESPN2

Tigers finally get to play again – their only game so far was Sept. 5 against Arkansas State – so they should be well-rested for the challenge of 3-0 SMU and the Mustangs’ high-octane offense in a key AAC game.

Oklahoma at Iowa State, 7:30, ABC

Only one of these two can move forward in the Big 12 title chase. Sooners need a big bounce back after their loss to Kansas State. Cyclones need to start playing better and in a hurry. Their performance in the win at TCU won’t get it done here.

Tom Luicci was the national college football and basketball writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. from 1979-2014.