Five questions

Q. Could the Pac-12 have made any bigger of a mess of its season than it already has?

You can start by putting the league on the playoff scrap heap along with the Big 12 thanks to Oregon’s loss to Oregon State. The Ducks were the league’s highest-ranked team in the first College Football Playoff rankings at a longshot No. 15 (USC, at No. 18, was the league’s only other ranked team) and seemed to represent the conference’s best playoff hope. That hope now appears to be gone.

So let’s sort out commissioner Larry Scott’s season of disarray.

With the cancellation of last Saturday’s USC-Colorado game, the only two unbeaten teams in the South Division probably won’t get to play, since the Pac-12 now has just two weekends left before the league championship game on Dec. 18.

What if USC and Colorado both finish unbeaten? You know the league will go with USC to represent the division in the league title game, and how happy are you about that if you’re sitting in Boulder?

The prospect of both finishing unbeaten is strong too.

But the Pac-12 deserves this turmoil. This is the same league that couldn’t decide if it wanted to play at all this season, or when to start; the same league that left itself no wiggle room for postponed games when it finally started play in November; the same league that has a team (Arizona State) that has played exactly one game so far (as a point of comparison, Texas State has played 12); the same league that thought a 9 a.m. local kickoff was a clever idea.

In 2020, when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, Scott stepped in and proved that was not true.

Q. There’s no way that Michigan and Jim Harbaugh would be petty enough to cancel the Ohio State game in two weeks – one the Buckeyes might need to qualify for the Big Ten championship game – because of a “sudden” COVID-19 issue, is there?

After being forced to cancel last week’s Illinois game because of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the program, Ohio State is hoping – but not certain yet – that Saturday’s game with Michigan State will be played. At 4-0, the Buckeyes need to play games and have just two left.

According to the Big Ten guidelines a team must play at least six games if the league average is eight to qualify for the conference championship game. If the average is lower, the minimum number of games is lower. But is four enough?

And if Saturday’s Michigan State game gets canceled, how eager would Harbaugh and Michigan be in an already-lost season to be embarrassed by Ohio State (especially since playing the game would greatly benefit the Buckeyes)? Just saying. Remember, it’s Harbaugh. The guy has nothing to lose at this point.

Q. Was there a better highlight to the weekend than seeing Sarah Fuller become the first female to appear in a game for a Power 5 team when she kicked off for Vanderbilt on Saturday?

The opening kickoff was her only appearance in the game against Missouri in large part because 0-8 Vandy is so inept that it never came close enough for her to have a chance at an extra point or field goal. But she would have been given the opportunity to do more if given the chance, and coach Derek Mason – in the midst of a nightmarish season that resulted in his firing today – deserves credit for both making it happen and the way he handled it.

This wasn’t a publicity stunt. COVID-19 left Vandy with no specialists, so Mason approached Fuller, the senior goalkeeper on Vandy’s women’s soccer team (the Commodores don’t have a men’s soccer team), and asked her if she would be interested in filling in. As Mason said, she could have declined. But Fuller embraced the opportunity, fully aware of the impact her presence in a major college football game could mean to a generation of young girls. Rarely has one routine kick had the kind of far-reaching impact Fuller’s did (take it from the father of three girls, one of whom was a college goalkeeper).

Q. Is there any chance the Big Ten could be shut out of the playoffs now that the league is down to Ohio State as its only unbeaten team?

Here’s the Big Ten’s big problem right now: Northwestern’s loss to Michigan State leaves league with just two teams (Ohio State and Indiana) that will be ranked high enough on Tuesday to have a shot at being one of the final four. Northwestern will drop significantly and Wisconsin, which has already lost to Northwestern, has only played three games.

That pretty much leaves Ohio State as the league’s only realistic playoff hope. And that means the Buckeyes need to play – and win – their final two games and the Big Ten championship game to earn a playoff spot. There will be some griping about that too since Ohio State will just be 7-0 and hasn’t dazzled anyone with its play so far. Indiana, at 5-1, seems to have too much ground to make up and faces a must-win against Wisconsin on Saturday.

So it’s Ohio State or bust for the Big Ten in this year’s playoffs, especially since the SEC champion will be in and with the ACC looking as if it might have two teams make it.

But imagine if Ohio State does lose and the Big Ten is shut out. That would likely mean that three of the Power 5 conferences would not have a team in the playoffs.

Playoff expansion talk, anyone?

Q. Is it time to declare Notre Dame a playoff team even if it loses in the ACC championship game?

Did you see the way the Irish’s defense manhandled quarterback Sam Howell and North Carolina’s explosive offense in Friday’s 31-17 victory? Some numbers of note: The Tar Heels’ heretofore dominant running game was limited to 87 yards on 30 carries. Notre Dame’s defense recorded six sacks and held North Carolina to a season-low 298 yards. Howell, unstoppable at points this season, was kept completely in check. This has been an ongoing theme for the Irish all season.

Now they have a Heisman candidate in QB Ian Book as well.

Notre Dame finishes the regular season with Syracuse and Wake Forest. If the Irish win both, they would seem to be playoff-bound regardless of the outcome of the ACC championship game.

On the Rise

Iowa State (7-2)

Cyclones’ 23-20 victory over underachieving Texas earned them a spot in the Big 12 championship game and enabled them to set a school record for conference wins with seven. Who wouldn’t want to be Matt Campbell’s agent right now?

Washington (3-0)

Huskies took control of the Pac-12 North with a 24-21 victory over Utah after the Utes built a 21-0 halftime lead. A late addition to the schedule after Washington’s game with Washington State was canceled, the victory could launch Washington into the lower reaches of this week’s playoff rankings.

Alabama (8-0)

Time to give the Crimson Tide their due. Saturday’s 42-13 rout of Auburn, with coach Nick Saban watching from afar, has been an extension of what is already a dominant season for the best team in the country. All that’s left is a game with LSU before a showdown with Florida in the SEC title game.

On the decline

Kansas State (4-5)

Remember the mid-season talk about the Wildcats being a contender for the Big 12 title? After starting 4-0 in league play Kansas State has lost four straight, the latest a 32-31 upset delivered by Baylor. The season his spiraled out of control for a team that once held promise.

Oregon (3-1)

After two straight unimpressive games in which they were able to escape with victories the Ducks were exposed in a 41-38 loss to rival Oregon State, ending their faint playoff hopes. Oregon’s defense needs a major upgrade.

SMU (7-3)

After starting 5-0 and rising to No. 16 in the rankings, the Mustangs, who refuse to play defense, have lost three of their last five to become an afterthought in the AAC. The latest was the most inexplicable of all the losses: 52-38 to an East Carolina team that had been 2-6.

Who’s hot

Jaret Patterson, RB, Buffalo

The Bulls’ fire hydrant-sized junior tied an FBS record by rushing for eight touchdowns and became just the fourth major college player to rush for 400 yards or more when he finished with 409 in a 70-41 victory over Kent State. Patterson has rushed for 710 yards and 12 TDs the past two games for 4-0 Buffalo.

Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State

Though backup QB Chance Nolan scored the game-winning TD on a one-yard sneak with 33 seconds left – the first play of his college career – in the 41-38 victory over Oregon, Jefferson got the Beavers to that point. He finished with 226 yards and two TDs on 29 carries.

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Time to give the junior his due since his stellar play often gets overshadowed by in Tuscaloosa. In Saturday’s 42-13 victory over Auburn Jones threw for 302 yards and a career-high five TDs, going 18-of-26 overall. He is too easy to take for granted.

Who’s not

Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh

An already daunting assignment at Clemson was made impossible when Pickett was picked off four times – three coming in the first eight minutes of a 52-17 loss. All three of those early interceptions lead to points for the Tigers.

Tailua Tagovailoa, QB, Maryland

It’s feast or famine for the promising Tagovailoa, who has the makings of a good one but is going through some serious growing pains. In Saturday’s 27-11 loss to Indiana he was intercepted three times and also was tackled in the end zone for a safety early in the game.

Rex Culpepper, QB, Syracuse

The senior has limited experience at quarterback but his gaffe in Saturday’s 36-29 loss to N.C. State was inexcusable. With the Orange driving at the Wolfpack seven yard line looking to tie (or win with a two-point conversion) Culpepper was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Then he spiked the ball with one second remaining to stop the clock. One problem. It was fourth down. Game over.

Playing it forward

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

Ohio State at Michigan State, Noon, ABC

Unbeaten Buckeyes, who had last week’s game against Illinois canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak, just need to keep playing and winning to earn a playoff spot. Spartans come off a stunning upset of Northwestern, which should give them renewed confidence.

Buffalo at Ohio, 3:30 p.m., CBSSN

If you missed the 409-yard, eight TD rushing game by the Bulls’ Jaret Patterson here’s your chance to catch up. Patterson has gone for 710 yards and 12 TDs the past two games for 4-0 Buffalo. Bobcats are 2-1.

Indiana at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m., ABC

Another one-loss Big Ten division contender will be saddled with a second costly defeat. Hoosiers are awaiting word on the status of QB Michael Penix, Jr., injured last week against Maryland. Wisconsin seems to play once a month. It’s December, so it’s time again.

Florida at Tennessee, 3:30 p.m., CBS

Gators will continue to look to showcase Heisman hopeful Kyle Trask while continuing to build their credentials as a playoff team. Turnover-prone Tennessee can be dangerous at times.

Liberty at Coastal Carolina, TBA

Flames come in at 9-1 and have recovered from that tough 15-14 loss to N.C. State. Coastal, 9-0 and nationally ranked, will use this as a tune-up for the Sun Belt championship game against Louisiana.

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