College Football Plus: Make Or Break Time Looms For LSU's National Title Hopes

Tom Luicci

Five questions

Q.Can LSU possibly survive its upcoming four-game stretch – and if the Tigers do is there any doubt they’re the No. 1 team in the country?

It doesn’t get much tougher than what LSU is facing over its next four games. It starts Saturday night when 6-0 Florida visits. A trip to Mississippi State follows before a return to Baton Rouge for a game against Auburn. After an open date it’s the anticipated showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9 (combined record of those four: 19-3). LSU already owns a quality win at Texas. But the Tigers’ playoff hopes hinge on the next four games.

Q.With Washington’s loss to Stanford is the Pac-12 officially out of consideration for the playoffs?

There are 16 unbeaten teams left in the country. Exactly half of those reside in the Big Ten and SEC, which have four apiece. The only Power 5 conference without an unbeaten team left is … wait for it … yes, the Pac-12. Eight Pac-12 teams already have two losses or more. The other four – Oregon, Arizona, Utah and Arizona State – are each 4-1. But Arizona still has to play Oregon, Utah and Arizona State so more losses are on the horizon for one or more of those four. Oregon is still hanging its helmet on running the table and finishing 12-1 with the lone loss to Auburn, but the Tigers still have LSU and Alabama to play and could be a three-loss team. At the very least, one week into October the Pac-12 is a longshot at best to have a playoff rep.

Q.How did Rutgers get this bad – again?

Welcome to the Graveyard of College Football. Let’s quickly re-cap how Rutgers is 1-4 and has been outscored 130-7 in three Big Ten games so far following a 48-7 home loss to a Maryland team coming off a 59-0 home loss.

The AD (Pat Hobbs) had no football background but managed to hire a football coach in 2016 without any head coaching experience from the Midwest following an “exhaustive” five-day search. Pretty impressive to get it done by himself in five days without ever having done a football hiring before, wouldn’t you say? Then he fired that coach after 40 games, after giving him an extension two years earlier, and had the gall at a post-firing press conference to say that coaches coming to Rutgers have to know they will get time. Then he replaced the head coach with a former high school head coach who has never been a coordinator at the college level. And because he fired his head coach after four games it gave the starting quarterback and star running back (who is also a captain) time to pause and consider their futures. Both announced prior to the Maryland game that they did not want to play in the game in the hope they could save this year as a redshirt season.

Right now it’s a program that gives dumpster fires a bad name.

Q.Is 6-0 SMU for real?

You know you’re having a special season when you can rally from a 30-9 fourth quarter-deficit for a 43-37 victory in triple overtime on a highlight reel-caliber 25-yard touchdown catch. The Mustangs posted their first win as a ranked team since 1986 and are 6-0 for the first time since the Pony Express days of Eric Dickerson and Craig James in 1982. It has taken that long to climb back to prominence since SMU became the first (and only so far) school to receive the death penalty, opting not to field a team in 1987 or 1988 as a result of those sanctions.

Now comes the hard part: Sustaining this run. It won’t be easy with Temple visiting on Saturday, a game at Memphis and a season-ending game with a Tulane team that is starting to get some attention from a 4-1 start.

Q.Is It time to take Florida seriously as a threat in the SEC?

The Gators’ defense is certainly championship caliber, reminding college football followers of that by holding Auburn to 269 yards and 2-of-14 on third-down conversions while forcing four turnovers. Offensively, though, major questions remain – and that was after redshirt junior QB Kyle Trask was solid in his second start since his freshman year in high school. But Trask is the backup, with starter Feleipe Franks likely lost for the season, meaning Florida is fragile at the position and is relying on a player with limited experience. Until the victory over Auburn (which was at The Swamp) the 6-0 Gators fattened up with one of the weakest early schedules in the country. A visit to LSU is on tap Saturday. And Georgia is looming. So we’ll see.

On the rise

Baylor (5-0)

Some Power 5 school (are you listening USC and UCLA?) could do a lot worse than prying away Matt Rhule from Waco. He rebuilds programs and he’s a terrific coach. Is there any more proof needed?

Cincinnati (4-1)

Bearcats have ripped off three straight wins since the Ohio State debacle, with the upset of UCF meaning we don’t have to listen to any more whining from Orlando. Thank you for that, Cincy.

Penn State (5-0)

Just how good are the Nittany Lions? They keep steamrolling teams, but the upcoming stretch of Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota – with Ohio State still to play as well – will tell us a lot more.

On the decline

Connecticut (1-4)

Serious question: Why is the UConn administration even bothering with football anymore? Huskies have lost 19 straight to FBS opponents and they’re about to be without a conference for football.

Buffalo (2-4)

For a guy who is supposed to be a hot coaching commodity Lance Leipold isn’t doing himself any favors with this start. Bulls are in last in the MAC East – which is saying something when you’re in the same division as Akron.

Miami (2-3)

Hurricanes have had one double-digit win season the previous 15 years – and won’t get one this year. Their days of being nationally relevant may be over.

Who’s hot

Johnathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

Just another day at the office for the reigning Doak Walker winner: 186 rushing yards with five TDs (four rushing) against Kent State, marking the 27th time in 32 career games he has topped 100 rushing yards. His 16 TDs are the most after five games since Ricky Williams had 20 in 1998.

Joe Burrow, QB, Ohio State

The Ohio State transfer became the first QB in LSU history to pass for more than 300 yards in four straight games after totaling 344 with five passing TDs in a rout of Utah State.

Lance McCallum, PK, Nebraska

The Air Force transfer, who came to Lincoln expecting to play safety, helped ease the Cornhuskers’ placekicking woes with a 24-yard field goal as time expired in a 13-10 victory over Northwestern. It marked just the third walk off play in the 96-year history of Memorial Stadium.

Who’s not

Nate Stanley, QB, Iowa

Three-year starter went to Michigan in a big spot and threw in a clunker, suffering three interceptions while being sacked eight times for minus-65 yards rushing in a 10-3 loss. But Kirk Ferentz just loves these plodding statues at quarterback.

Spencer Sanders, QB, Oklahoma State

Hate to be too tough on a redshirt freshman with limited experience but he was just plain awful in a 45-35 loss to Texas Tech, throwing three interceptions while losing two fumbles.

Jackson Baltar, PK, Buffalo

Freshman kicker missed both of his field goal attempts in regulation and then an extra point in OT, allowing Ohio to escape with a 21-20 victory over the Bulls.

Playing it forward

The top games of the coming week (all times Eastern)

Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas), noon, FOX

The Red River Rivalry will again establish the team to beat in the Big 12 going forward. Highly recommend the corn dog if you make it to the Texas State Fair.

Memphis at Temple, noon, ESPN2

Some love for the American: Unbeaten Memphis at once-beaten Temple, which is coming off a nice win at ECU. Cross-divisional game with major implications in the league.

USC at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC

One of the great rivalries in college football, even if the Trojans look like a team on the verge of unraveling.

Penn State at Iowa, 7:30 p.m., ABC

How will the Hawkeyes respond after that tough loss at Michigan? How will the unbeaten Nittany Lions respond to their first significant road test?

Florida at LSU, 8 p.m., ESPN

No hype needed. Just two unbeaten top 10 teams slugging it out with national championship implications at stake in Baton Rouge.

Story Lines

1. Are we looking at another year where Boise State is the best the Power 5 leagues will have to put up as New Year’s Six bowl candidate? It seems to be shaping up that way, with Hawaii, BYU, Wyoming, San Jose State and Utah State all that’s standing in the way of a perfect regular season for the Broncos (remember, the highest-ranked Group of 5 team is guaranteed a New Year’s six bowl game if it is not in the playoffs). Boise controls its own fate as the highest-ranked Group of Five school at the moment. Unbeatens Memphis and SMU may have something to say about that, but they still have to play, so one will incur a loss.

2. How do fans feel about players taking more control of their careers, especially when trapped in a losing environment, as was the case with two Rutgers starters last Saturday? Quarterback Art Sitkowski and star running back Raheem Blackshear – also a team captain – requested not to play in the Scarlet Knights’ 48-7 loss to Maryland in the hope of preserving this year as a redshirt season. That could mean they are headed out, though they have the option of waiting until a new head coach is named. Either way, they requested not to play in a game, essentially because of personal reasons. They’re not the first to do this and certainly won’t be the last. Maybe it’s their right, but it doesn’t feel right. And how do you respond as a teammate? It’s worth keeping an eye on.

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

Comments (2)
No. 1-1

great comment about Rhule. He should be on top of anyone's wish list.

TMG Maven