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Seven-Step Drop: Big 12, Big Ten Title Races Shaping up to be Great Down the Stretch

Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley

TCU Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson

Even without names attached to games this past weekend, you knew that things were ripe to be extra exciting around college football in Week 4.

It was that murky time where most teams have wrapped up non-conference play (romping over a bunch of cupcakes) and all set to begin their pursuit of league titles and bear down to chase playoff spots. Mix in the fact that nearly half of the top 25 teams were hitting the road — including four of the top five — for conference games and things were liable to get a little dicey in the grand scheme of things if a few wild plays happened here or there.

In short, chaos was lurking.

And while we came close though, we didn’t really get it. At least not on the grand scale we saw seven days ago.

While it’s true that we saw some great finishes and one notable upset of a ranked team by an unranked one, it was otherwise a week of the status quo when looking just at the wins and the losses on the surface. Look deeper though and examine a few of those big conference games and one might find that a few title races are going to be a lot more intriguing than we could have imagined on Friday night.

Nowhere was that more evident than in Stillwater, where all the talk of a Bedlam for the ages between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma was rudely interrupted by TCU. The Horned Frogs once again look like a College Football Playoff contender in their own right and set for yet another huge bounce-back season under Gary Patterson after slipping noticeably in 2016. This is just what the program does under their veteran coach after hard times and while you wanted to believe that 3-0 start, you just weren’t sure until Big 12 play began.

Now it’s safe to say that TCU is firmly in the mix to be at that first-ever conference title following a round-robin league schedule — especially combined with Oklahoma’s struggles to put away a lackluster Baylor team that rose up and gave the Sooners everything they had and then some down in Waco.

The Horned Frogs didn’t just beat the Cowboys in front of their home crowd, they had an answer for nearly everything that was thrown at them. TCU almost doubled OSU’s time of possession to keep the ball away from Mason Rudolph and company, ran the play count up to wear out their defense and made huge plays in every critical situation that popped up. In doing so, they went from league dark horse to one of the two front-runners with that crucial tie-breaker on the road and a relatively favorable schedule the rest of the way.

It’s a heck of a story if Patterson and company can keep things going, especially given the ups and downs that quarterback Kenny Hill has been through to get back into this kind of position. This team may not quite be in the same class as Oklahoma just yet but they’ve historically played well in Norman and matchup favorably with that deep veteran secondary. Add in solid showings on Saturday from the rest of the league top to bottom and perhaps the Big 12 isn’t just limited to Bedlam in terms of games to circle on the calendar like many assumed.

The same could also be said for the Big Ten, where Penn State needed every one of those 358 all-purpose yards they could squeeze out of Saquon Barkley and a brilliant final drive from Trace McSorley to pull one out in a hostile environment at Iowa. The thrilling finish in a close game is something the team hasn’t had yet this season and could be just the type of adversity the Nittany Lions can rely on if they’re locked into tight ones with their fellow division powers Michigan and Ohio State.

Was James Franklin’s squad as crisp as we thought they would be? No, but they didn’t trip up in an obvious situation that many others would have. The fact is teams grow and change as the year goes on and a win like that might become the right kick to set them off on a run like they had in the second half of last season.

Speaking of the Hawkeyes, they look like they are firmly back in the mix on their side of the conference bracket and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they can push the Buckeyes when they come to town in early November (who will have just played that big revenge game against PSU in the ‘Shoe, mind you). Wisconsin still is the team to beat until further notice but if Iowa keeps playing defense like it did on Saturday night, it will have a huge say in terms of which team winds up in Indianapolis come December.

Elsewhere, Michigan had its hands full with a much more potent Purdue team. We all knew defense would be able to win ball games for the Wolverines the way they have played under coordinator Don Brown but what makes things even more interesting in Ann Arbor is the potential for a bit of a quarterback controversy on the hands of Jim Harbaugh. We’ll find out just what the future holds for Wilton Speight but if backup John O’Korn can continue to be solid and help the offense out of their red zone struggles, maybe they’re close to the other elite teams in the Big Ten than we expected by the time the calendar turns to October.

Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh was Big Ten MVP under legendary coach Bo Schembechler.

Given all the big-name coaches and schools in the top 10, a fun Big Ten title race was expected. But the way things have played out so far in September figures to jolt expectations further the rest of the way. That much also is true down in Big 12 country after this weekend too, where perhaps the conference is a little closer than we first thought from one until 10 in the standings.

Who knows if chaos will keep lurking around the corner but either way, buckle up and get ready because conference play looks like it will be quite the roller coaster the rest of the way.

Other takeaways from Week 4:

2. Heisman field is narrowing

Usually by this point in the season, there’s somebody who has been so dazzling on the field with so many big numbers that they’re handed the September Heisman. Who could forget West Virginia’s Geno Smith throwing for all those yards? Or Kenny Hill going all Kenny Trill to replace Johnny Football? Go back even further and Denard Robinson totally had that award on lockdown for Michigan.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield

This season feels like nothing of the sort. There’s the same general group of front-runners performing at a high level. If there’s any separation, it’s from the top two down following a loss by Mason Rudolph and generally uninspiring performances from everybody else. At the moment things look very much like a two-horse race between Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley. That doesn’t mean that Sam Darnold, Nick Chubb or others can’t join in on the fun but early on at least, the field has certainly narrowed for the big bronze trophy.

3. Pac-12 powers pass road tests

The writing was on the wall for USC to struggle at Cal this weekend. The Trojans had just played a thrilling overtime game against Texas deep into the night and were beat up in the trenches. The star tailback was left at home for the first road trip of the year and the Bears, coached by former a USC defensive coordinator, were much improved and looking to end a long losing streak to their SoCal rivals.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington
College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Then there was the other elite team in the Pac-12, Washington, making the tricky trip to Boulder to face a Buffaloes team that still looks like they can win the South division. Add in a little #Pac12AfterDark potential and a decent helping of inclement weather and there was a recipe for a few close calls out West for the favorites in the conference.

While it may have looked like those fears in Seattle and Los Angeles were going to play out in the first half, both the Trojans and the Huskies ended up pulling away after leaving the locker room and capturing a pair of comfortable road wins. Sam Darnold and Jake Browning certainly weren’t as crisp as you would expect but the real stars were the two team’s defenses coming out with a vengeance in the second half. USC forced six turnovers against the Bears to help propel them to a victory while Washington clamped down to go on a 27-3 run and turn things into a rout against the Buffs.

It certainly may not have been pretty but survive and advance is the name of the game on the road in the league and both of the Pac-12’s top teams did just that and more so on Saturday.

4. Lesson learned in Nashville

There was more overthinking done about Vanderbilt’s chances to knock off Alabama than just about any matchup in the country last week. Yes, the Commodores were good on defense in racing out to that 3-0 start and playing a big game at home in September for the first time in a long while. The Vanderbilt offense was markedly improved too and there was even an increasing chorus saying that Derek Mason’s team was firmly in the SEC East mix.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

While the jury is still out on that latter point, a bone-crushing defeat at the hands of the Crimson Tide seemed all but inevitable the moment people started playing up defensive lineman Nifae Lealao saying, “Alabama, you’re next.” The comments were more fact from the calendar than trash talk out of Nashville but boy did it seem to filter down from the top in Tuscaloosa and turn into quite the motivational ploy.

The Tide dominated in their 59-0 victory as a result, turning in the most impressive all-around performance of any team in Week 4. The defense in particular seemed to take the comments personally and played phenomenally, while the offense ripped off big play after big play to end any doubt by the second quarter. There was some increasing talk that Clemson should be moved to No. 1 in the polls but Nick Saban’s team stopped such thoughts right in their tracks with that kind of outing against Vanderbilt.

5. Boise State blues

While Boise State’s blowout loss to Virginia was overshadowed by the president’s comments on Friday night, the outcome of the game was nevertheless shocking to see for a team that we’ve become so accustomed to winning on that blue turf. While it remains possible the team rights itself come Mountain West play, the Broncos are still looking at one of their worst starts in 15 years with trips to BYU and San Diego State upcoming.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Boise State

There have been a lot of theories thrown around as to what’s brought this on (and a lot more criticism than warranted directed toward Bryan Harsin) but it seems more than anything that this is simply the year where everything is catching up to the team. You can’t lose a top-five coach in the sport and not expect to take a step back. Losing four coordinators in three seasons makes things even worse. Not developing guys as well as you used to was bound to happen and conference rivals are going to adapt no matter what you do too. It’s been three years since a league title and looking like a fourth the way this team has played so far in 2017.

As much as fans pine for yesteryear while going through all this, that’s just where things stand in Boise.

6. Your weekly hot seat

Mike Riley: Hotter. Did himself no favors after his athletic director was fired by struggling to beat Rutgers at home.

Volunteers - Gators Prediction: Butch Jones

Butch Jones (right): Hotter. UMass may very well be a bottom-five team in the FBS so barely holding on at home and the empty crowd said everything it needed to on Saturday.

Mark Stoops: Even. There hasn’t been a ton of hot seat talk for Stoops but after another, super cruel loss to Florida it could start to creep in if things go south.

Kevin Sumlin: Cooler. The Aggies are going to be a wild ride all year long but perhaps that Arkansas win could mark a turning point in the campaign to save his job.

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Barry Odom: Hotter. His impassioned speech after another blowout reeked of trying to buy more time for a job that isn’t getting easier.

Kliff Kingsbury: Way cooler. A 3-0 start is huge in Lubbock and there are signs of life on defense most importantly.

Todd Graham: Even. Is beating Oregon progress? Yes. But until Arizona State strings these performances together, it’s still warm in Tempe.

Jim Mora: Hotter. Every Bruins fan knows the drill against Stanford at this point but even that outing on the Farm could make things tougher on the administration from those that write big checks.

7. Bit of normalcy returns for Florida teams

There was a little more normalcy around the Sunshine State as nearly every FBS program was back in action at some point over the weekend. Those schools that had played last week seemed to fare best in Week 4 as FIU captured a conference win over Rice, USF rolled a bad Temple squad, Florida came back to beat Kentucky and Florida Atlantic nearly went up and beat Buffalo. Among those that were off, UCF looked the best in their big win over Maryland (helped out when the Terrapins lost their QB, it should be noted), Miami struggled to find its legs before pulling away from a good Toledo team and, of course, Florida State seemed all out of sorts in a loss to NC State.

Stat of the Week

Virginia, which was 1-21 on the road coming in, beat Boise State on the blue turf 43-23. That loss snapped a 32-game streak at home in non-conference play for the Broncos. BSU losing by 19 can be put in proper perspective considering it went 93-5 at home dating back to 2002 and lost those five games by a combined 23 points.

Virginia: college football picks against the spread

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

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Best player: Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Saquon Barkley (Penn State), 3. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 4. Rashaad Penny (San Diego State), 5. Sam Darnold (USC)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Oklahoma, 4. Ohio State

Team of the week: Stanford

Honorary Les Miles goat of the week: Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Quote of the week: The entire Barry Odomstate of the program” address after a 51-14 loss to Auburn.

Plays of the Week


Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 3.

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Oklahoma

4. Penn State

5. Georgia

6. Washington

7. TCU

8. USC

9. Ohio State

10. Oklahoma State

11. Wisconsin

12. Virginia Tech

13. Michigan

14. Washington State

15. Miami

16. Mississippi State

Best of the rest: Louisville, Notre Dame, Auburn, Utah, San Diego State, Colorado, West Virginia, NC State, Duke

Pre-snap Reads

Clemson at Virginia Tech

This ACC title game rematch figures to be the best of the bunch on Saturday and is the next big step for the Tigers to prove they reign supreme in the conference once again. Blacksburg is notoriously difficult to play at – especially at night – and it goes without saying that this will be the biggest test of Kelly Bryant’s career when he faces off against that Bud Foster defense. Hokies QB Josh Jackson has been impressive and should help keep this close until the final 10 minutes, when Clemson ends up pulling away by forcing some mistakes down the stretch.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Virginia Tech
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

USC at Washington State

A lot of folks have penciled this in as the Trojans’ toughest test on their schedule and it’s shaping up to be just that based on how each side has played so far. Add in the difficulty of playing on short rest and having to travel to Pullman on Friday and it would not be shocking at all to see the Cougars jump out to an early lead going into halftime. Still, something says Sam Darnold puts up some big numbers and jumps back into the Heisman race in a big way.

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College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Mississippi State at Auburn

The Bulldogs were humbled on the road between the hedges against Georgia and do not have an easy bounce-back game having to travel to Auburn on Saturday night. The Tigers’ defense has not been the issue so far this year but we’ll see if the signs of life from the offense last week were due to adjustments by the coaching staff or the mirage of playing Missouri and being a one-week wonder. Both coaches likely have a few tricks up their sleeves for this one so things could get wild before the home team pulls away late to win by two scores.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.