Luicci's College Football Plus: Week 8 Recap

Tom Luicci

Five questions

Q. What did we learn about the Big Ten after the league’s opening weekend of play?

Hard to believe the conference has sorted things out already. There are three teams of national consequence – Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Rutgers, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern (last in the Big Ten West a year ago after winning the division in 2018) are potential feel-good stories but aren’t good enough to make an impact otherwise. Maryland, Illinois and Michigan State look like bad football teams. Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State are already disappointments (Nebraska because of the no-longer-deserved high opinion the Cornhuskers have of themselves).

All that from just one weekend of games. Talk about fast-developing story lines.

Q. Are we getting used to the new normal yet in college football?

Four very “2020” things happened on Saturday.

FAU was without 43 players who began fall camp for its game against Marshall, managing to bring just 57 players on the trip – barely above the minimum of 53 required to play. The Owls have had five of their first six games canceled due to COVID-19.

Army improved to 6-1 and accepted a bid to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., to face a team from the Pac-12, even though the Pac-12 hasn’t started playing yet.

Chattanooga lost to Western Kentucky, 13-10, in the only game the Mocs will play this fall. They are scheduled to play an eight-game schedule in the Southern Conference in the spring.

Ohio State’s game against Nebraska was limited to 1,344 fans in 105,000-seat Ohio Stadium due to COVID-19 restrictions. It’s believed to be the smallest crowd to see the Buckeyes play since before 1910. No script “Ohio” either.

2020. The year that just keeps on bizarrely giving.

Q. How good is Oklahoma State?

We know this about the 4-0 Mullet Men: They play terrific defense and have one of the best running backs in the country. This is a defense that is good well beyond the Big 12’s ridiculously low standards of judging that side of the ball. Saturday’s 24-21 victory over conference wannabe contender Iowa State kept the Cowboys in the hunt for a playoff spot – if they can get through the rest of the schedule unbeaten. The upcoming three-game stretch (Texas, at Kansas State and at Oklahoma) will tell a lot more about Mike Gundy’s squad.

But right now, OSU and Kansas State are the only Big 12 teams capable of making any inroads on the national scene, with the 4-1 Wildcats having won four straight since a stunning opening-game loss to Arkansas State.

Good defense, Chuba Hubbard and just enough solid play from QB Spencer Sanders have the Cowboys looking like a dangerous team right now. We’ll know more about them soon enough.

Q. Did Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. actually cross the plane of the goal line during his controversial two-point run that gave the Hoosiers a 36-35 upset of No. 8 Penn State in overtime?

With video replay the call on the field is always the tiebreaker when there is not indisputable evidence. But did Penix do enough on his stretching, air-borne dive to have his two-point conversion upheld? From the side angle it appears the ball may have hit the ground before it touched the pylon as he was stretched out. It’s also a matter of dispute if he ever broke the plane of the goal line (from this vantage point it appears he did not). Penn State coach James Franklin seems to have a legitimate beef, though there is not much recourse. He should be more upset at the sloppy play of his team.

As for the decision to go for two when it wasn’t necessary to do so, Indiana coach Tom Allen – whose program had a 42-game losing streak against Top 10 teams entering the game – said he was “tired of being close.” Cigar time, coach.

Q. Is Cincinnati gradually working its way into the playoff conversation?

After mauling previously-unbeaten and 16th-ranked SMU in Dallas in an impressive 42-13 victory, the Bearcats are 4-0 and the lone unbeaten team in the AAC. But just how good are they?

In non-conference play Cincy has beaten Austin Peay and 6-1 Army, but how much weight the latter carries nationally remains to be seen. A game against pesky Tulsa was postponed. There’s also a victory over 1-5 South Florida. So the SMU win, especially the way it was accomplished, is particularly significant.

A few more tests are coming, starting Saturday when a dangerous Memphis team visits. Houston follows and there’s a game at UCF on Nov. 21 that will be challenging. Does an 11-0 Cincinnati (counting the league championship game) have a case for a playoff spot? It’s going to be a longshot for sure.

Q. On the Rise

Rutgers (1-0)

The Scarlet Knights snapped a 21-game Big Ten losing streak with a 38-27 victory over Michigan State in coach Greg Schiano’s debut, Part 2. Seriously, who could have predicted that this Saturday’s Rutgers-Indiana game would find the winner 2-0 in Big Ten play?

Coastal Carolina (5-0)

The Chanticleers already have three Sun Belt Conference wins for the first time since moving to the FBS level four years ago following Saturday’s 28-14 victory over Georgia Southern. Coastal won the game without injured starting QB Grayson McCall too, with backup Fred Payton throwing for 252 yards and three TDs.

Wake Forest (3-2)

After losing to Clemson to start the season, then suffering a three-point loss to N.C. State, the Demon Deacons have won three straight. The latest was a 23-16 upset of No. 19-ranked Virginia Tech. With Syracuse next Wake should keep rolling.

On the decline

Pittsburgh (3-4)

Maybe opening with victories over Austin Peay, Syracuse and Louisville wasn’t such a good gauge of this team. Yes, the Panthers are without starting QB Kenny Pickett, and probably for the rest of the year. But they were not even competitive against Notre Dame and have lost four straight for the first time since 2007.

Maryland (0-1)

Terps look to be vying for the title as the Big Ten’s worst team after a 43-3 loss to a Northwestern team that was last in the Big Ten West a year ago. They were 1-8 in league play last year and haven’t had a winning season since 2014. In Year 2 under Mike Locksley it doesn’t look as if anything has changed.

TCU (1-3)

Remember when Gary Patterson was considered a good coach? He’s 13-16 the past three years and could be headed for his third losing record over the past five seasons after the Horned Frogs were manhandled by Oklahoma. That’s two straight losses for TCU since beating Texas, though there are plenty of winnable games left on the schedule.

Who’s hot

Nick Anderson, S, Wake Forest

The walk-on had three interceptions in the Demon Deacons’ 23-16 upset of No. 19 Virginia Tech, with two stopping deep drives by the Hokies. The third one ended Tech’s final possession.

Desmond Ridder, QB, Cincinnati

The 6-4, 215-pound junior came up big in the Bearcats’ biggest game so far, rushing for 179 yards and three touchdowns on eight carries while passing for 126 yards and a score in a 42-13 rout of No. 16 SMU.

Graham Mertz, QB, Wisconsin

The first freshman to start a season opener for the Badgers since 1978 showed what all the fuss was about during his recruitment, going 20-of-21 for 248 yards and five TDs in the 45-7 rout of Illinois. Mertz tied a school record by completing his first 17 passes.

Who’s not

Collin Riccitelli, PK, Rice

The grad transfer from Stanford went viral when his potential game-winning 45-yard FG in OT bounced off all three bars of the goal post, twice hitting the crossbar, before falling into the end zone. A quadruple doink. Then his 40-yard field goal try in the second OT in a 40-34 loss was blocked.

Tualia Tagovailoa, QB, Maryland

What’s in a name? Not much, apparently. Tua’s younger brother made his debut a forgettable one in a 43-3 loss to Northwestern, throwing for just 95 yards with three interceptions with minus-16 rushing yards on three carries.

Kentucky quarterbacks

It’s an ongoing issue for the Wildcats at the most important position on the field. But in Saturday’s 20-10 loss to Missouri Terry Wilson and Joey Gatewood hit a new low, combining to go 4-of-13 for 46 yards – with 26 of those yards coming on one completion. Kentucky did not complete a pass in the second or third quarter.

Playing it forward

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

Memphis at Cincinnati, ESPN or ESPN2, Noon

Another test for the unbeaten Bearcats, who have quick turnaround after manhandling previously-unbeaten SMU. Memphis QB Brady White has been on a roll the past two games.

Indiana at Rutgers, BTN, 3:30 p.m.

Only because the winner here will be 2-0 in Big Ten play – who saw that coming? – and unbeaten in the conference heading into November. Go figure.

Texas at Oklahoma State, FOX, 4 p.m.

Unbeaten Cowboys have to gear up again after a big victory over Iowa State with their defense likely to be tested by Sam Ehlinger and the Longhorns’ explosive offense.

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

Buckeyes will look to strengthen their playoff credentials with a road win over a Penn State team that has to be seething after the OT loss to Indiana.

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