If you thought the Big Ten was a mess a few weeks ago, things have gotten even crazier since then.
Ohio State, the conference’s main contender for the College Football Playoff, is undefeated but now in danger of missing the Big Ten title game due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Buckeyes already missed a game against Maryland because of virus issues with the Terps, and now OSU had to cancel its game against Illinois this weekend because of its own positive tests, including one for head coach Ryan Day.
If Ohio State misses one more game, it would almost certainly be disqualified for the conference championship game due to the Big Ten rule requiring a team to play “at least six games to be considered for participation in the championship game.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters Saturday that the program’s “primary focus” is to return to the field next Saturday at Michigan State. But there is no guarantee, and we could find ourselves a couple weeks away from College Football Playoff debates about an undefeated OSU team that could not even play in its own conference title game.
No. 4 Ohio State fell behind one-loss Clemson in the initial batch of College Football Playoff rankings. It’s anybody’s guess in determining how the selection committee would view an OSU team that finishes out the season with only five or six games under its belt (OSU will presumably still play on Dec. 19 even if it misses out on the Big Ten title game).
And if Ohio State indeed finds itself unable to compete for a Big Ten title, Indiana is the next team in line in the Big Ten East. The Hoosiers improved to 5-1 by beating Maryland on Saturday, but it may have come at a price. Michael Penix Jr., who threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns a week earlier in IU’s 42-35 loss to Ohio State, exited the game with what the program is calling a “lower leg” injury.
Jack Tuttle, a Utah transfer, finished the game at QB for Indiana, but the injury to Penix would be a significant blow if it is determined to be serious — especially with a trip to Wisconsin on the horizon.
The rest of the Big Ten East is mostly a mess with two usual Big Ten power brokers — Penn State and Michigan — competing in a meaningless slog of a game on Saturday. The result was a 27-17 win for Penn State, its first of the season (PSU is now 1-5), and the latest disappointment for Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, who are now 2-4 on the year.
The Big Ten’s other perceived CFP contender, Northwestern, completely laid an egg on Saturday. The Wildcats were ranked No. 8 after an impressive win over Wisconsin last week but are now set to take a tumble in the rankings thanks to a 23-20 loss to an undermanned Michigan State team. Northwestern fell behind 17-0, rallied back to take a 20-17, but then set up the game-tying and game-winning Michigan State field goals with two fourth-quarter turnovers.
Northwestern (5-1) is still in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West thanks to its wins over Iowa, Wisconsin and Purdue. No. 16 Wisconsin has played only three games and is in the boat Ohio State doesn’t want to be in. The Badgers (2-1) lost this weekend’s game with Minnesota due to the Gophers’ virus issues, meaning it won’t play six regular season games.
The bottom four teams in the Big Ten West all have losing records, including a Purdue team that dropped to 2-3 with a loss to Rutgers.
All of that means that Ohio State is the conference’s lone playoff hope. And if the Buckeyes end up on the outside looking in, they will have been doomed by their own conference’s ambitious plan for the season.
Daily testing was supposed to make eight games in eight weeks feasible once the Big Ten decided to play in 2020. With that line of thinking, the six-game minimum for conference title eligibility did not seem like much of an obstacle at the time.
A month later, it could be what keeps the Big Ten away from college football’s biggest stage.
Here are this week’s winners and losers.
— Sam Cooper
Iowa State: Iowa State rallied late to beat Texas on Friday and is now on the precipice of playing in the Big 12 title game for the first time in program history. Breece Hall scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:25 to play to cap off a comeback that included stopping Texas twice on fourth down, once on a fake punt and again on a Sam Ehlinger QB keeper. Now 7-2 on the year, Iowa State will officially clinch a spot in the title game by beating West Virginia next week. The Cyclones have not won a conference championship since 1912.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide unequivocally justified their No. 1 ranking in a 42-13 Iron Bowl win over No. 22 Auburn. QB Mac Jones threw for five TDs and the Alabama defense locked down on Auburn’s offense as the Crimson Tide clinched the SEC West title with the win. Alabama will likely play Florida in the SEC championship game for a spot in the College Football Playoff. And it’s hard to bet against a well-rounded Alabama team despite the absence of star WR Jaylen Waddle.
Clemson: Clemson returned to the field after a three-week absence and absolutely throttled Pitt, 52-17. The Tigers were ticked off when the Florida State game was abruptly called off last week, and it was plenty evident early against the Panthers. Trevor Lawrence, playing his first game since Oct. 24, threw for 403 yards as the Tigers jumped out to a 31-0 lead after just one quarter. It was likely Lawrence’s final home game in a Clemson uniform as he is destined for the NFL. He made it count, and now the Tigers are 8-1 with their eye on a rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC title game a few weeks down the road.
East Carolina: ECU had a few close losses earlier in the year, including a controversial one on the road against Tulsa. The Pirates were 1-6 after losing 55-17 to Cincinnati a few weeks ago, but they didn’t quit on the season. They trounced Temple last week and then pulled off a big upset over SMU on Saturday to close out the season. It was a 52-38 win for the Pirates, and the game wasn’t as close as it may appear. ECU, a 12-point home underdog, led 45-7 at halftime. It was a dominant and impressive way to finish the 2020 season.
Washington: The Huskies trailed Utah 21-0 at halftime before reeling off 24 straight points in a 24-21 win to move to 3-0. UW scored the winning TD with 36 seconds left when QB Dylan Morris found TE Cade Otton for a 16-yard TD. Washington was 0-15 over the last 30 years when it trailed by 21 or more points and the win was the first 20+ point comeback since Washington came back to beat Cal in 1988. With Oregon losing on Friday night to Oregon State, the Huskies are now alone in first place in the Pac-12 North.
Rutgers: Rutgers entered Saturday’s game at Purdue without starting quarterback Noah Vedral. Artur Sitkowski got the start and the Scarlet Knights fell behind 23-13 at halftime. Along with Sitkowski, Rutgers mixed in Johnny Langan at QB in the first half. Langan is more of a downhill runner, and the coaching staff made the switch to Langan in the second half. It paid off big time.
Rutgers ran the ball on 35 of its 41 offensive plays in the second half and Langan finished the day with 95 rushing yards. He also hit Kay’Ron Adams for a 62-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, helping Rutgers flip a 10-point halftime deficit into a 37-30 win. Rutgers is now 2-4 on the season and looking considerably more competitive in Greg Schiano’s first season than any other recent Rutgers team.
Missouri: Don’t look now but Eli Drinkwitz’s team is now 4-3. Yes, the Tigers beat lowly Vanderbilt on Saturday, but Missouri has a decent shot at a winning season now. How crazy is that? Mizzou finishes the year with Arkansas, Mississippi State and Georgia and 2-1 looks doable. RB Larry Rountree — a guy who became Mizzou’s all-time leading rusher a week ago — rushed 21 times for 160 yards and three scores against the Commodores and redshirt freshman QB Connor Bazelak was 30-of-37 passing for 318 yards.
Buffalo RB Jarret Patterson: The junior became the first player since Ricky Williams in 1998 to rush for over 300 yards in back-to-back games in Buffalo’s 70-41 win over Kent State. Oh, he tied the FBS record for most rushing TDs in a game too. Patterson had 409 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on Saturday as Buffalo moved to 4-0. He could have broken both of the records late in the game but Bulls coach Lance Leipold pulled him after Patterson crossed the 400-yard mark.
Vanderbilt K Sarah Fuller: Fuller deserves every accolade she gets for becoming the first woman to play for a Power Five conference team when she kicked off to start the second half. And it’s not her fault that the kickoff was her only game action of the day. Vanderbilt was terrible all day in a 41-0 loss, so Fuller never got a chance to kick an extra point or even a field goal. But she executed the pooch kickoff that she was asked to do — if you don’t believe that, watch Vanderbilt’s return team immediately head to the spot where Fuller kicked the ball — and that’s mission accomplished for any football player.
Ole Miss: The Rebels won the Egg Bowl over rival Ole Miss 31-24 on Saturday. QB Matt Corral was 24-of-36 passing for 385 yards and 2 TDs as the Rebels went up 14-0 early and held on for the win. WR Elijah Moore was fantastic again with 12 catches for 139 yards as Ole Miss had over 500 total yards of offense again. The defense, however, gave up 440 yards on 61 pass attempts to Mississippi State QB Will Rogers.
Texas State: We have a team that completed a full season of college football. Texas State lost 49-14 to No. 20 Coastal Carolina on Saturday but became the first team in college football to play a “normal” season’s worth of 12 games. Who cares if the Bobcats finished the season 2-10. This is a team that actually tried to play a regular schedule and accomplished that without any postponements. Well done, Texas State.
Texas A&M: Look, the No. 5 Aggies got to 6-1 with a 20-7 win over LSU on Saturday night. But that was an ugly win. And, most importantly, it’s hard to see how A&M is a team that could compete with either of the four teams ranked ahead of them in the College Football Playoff rankings. A big reason for that is QB Kellen Mond. Mond struggled mightily against the Tigers and was just 11-of-34 for 105 yards. That’s an average of just over three yards an attempt. The running game was, thankfully for A&M, much better. Isaiah Spiller had 27 carries for 141 yards and a TD. Is A&M really good? Yes. Are the Aggies great? We’re not sure.
Pittsburgh: Warranted or not, Pat Narduzzi has developed a reputation for being conservative on fourth down, especially in the red zone. It feels like every Pitt game you see Narduzzi trotting out kicker Alex Kessman for a chip-shot field goal when going for it seems like a much better option. It happened again on Saturday, and it was arguably Narduzzi’s worst field goal decision since he sent Kessman in for a 19-yard field goal when Pitt trailed Penn State 17-10 last year. This time, his Panthers trailed Clemson 31-0, and Narduzzi opted for a 23-yard try from Kessman rather than going for it on fourth-and-3 from the Clemson 5-yard line. Kessman made the kick and cut Clemson’s lead to 31-3. Pitt would go on to lose 52-17 to drop to 5-5 on the year.
Texas: The No. 17 Longhorns were eliminated from Big 12 contention with a loss at home to Iowa State on Friday. Iowa State outscored Texas 10-0 in the fourth quarter in the 23-20 win as Texas kicker Cameron Dicker’s 57-yard game-tying field goal just sailed wide as time expired. It was QB Sam Ehlinger’s final home game as a Longhorn and he had this to say after the game.
Ehlinger asked if Herman got the most out of these players, or if coaching in general is the problem: "That’s the million dollar question everybody’s trying to figure out the last 10 years."
— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) November 27, 2020
Will Texas make a coaching change? It seems like a ridiculous question. But this is Texas. Nothing is too ridiculous. Especially with a team that’s 4-3 in the Big 12.
Cal: Losing to your hated rival because of a blocked extra point has to be incredibly painful. Stanford’s Thomas Booker blocked a game-tying PAT by Dario Longhetto with less than a minute left to preserve a 24-23 win for the Cardinal on Friday. Cal dropped to 0-3 with the loss despite rushing for 241 yards as a team on just 35 carries. With its first two games of the season canceled due to COVID-19, Cal needs to beat either Oregon or Washington State to not go 0-5 during the regular season.
Syracuse: Always make sure that you spike the ball with a down or two remaining.
Syracuse QB Rex Culpepper forgot that it was third down after he took a sack late in the Orange’s loss to NC State on Saturday. With Syracuse frantically trying to score a game-tying TD, Culpepper spiked the ball after the sack with the hope of one more play.
Except that it was fourth down when he spiked it.
Syracuse spikes the ball on 4th down, needing a TD to tie the game. 😂 pic.twitter.com/XJH8gTMl1O
— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) November 28, 2020
Whoops. The chances of Syracuse getting the tie (or the win) were slim anyway. But they at least existed before the spike.
Kansas State: The Wildcats are sliding backward. KSU lost 32-31 to Baylor as John Mayers kicked a 30-yard field goal with no time left. That field goal was the first Baylor lead since the Bears led 6-0 in the first quarter. The loss is the fourth straight for K-State, a team that’s struggled with QB Skylar Thompson out for the season. The Wildcats have struggled to find a downfield passing game with freshman QB Will Howard and the defense has struggled too. KSU has given up over 30 points in three of those four defeats.
Texas Tech: Surprise onside kicks can be very good. But they also have to be a surprise. Tech tried a surprise onside kick in its 50-44 loss to No. 23 Oklahoma State on Saturday and it was not a surprise.
— OSU Cowboy Football 🇨🇦🤠 (@CowboyFB) November 28, 2020
Tech had just taken a 24-21 lead midway through the third quarter when the kick was called and Jason Taylor returned it 48 yards for a touchdown and an Oklahoma State lead. The Cowboys never trailed after the kick.
Wells on thought process about the onside kick Jason Taylor returned for a TD: "It was a look that we had seen on tape that we thought we could take advantage of. Something we practiced on all week. We got it confirmed on several kicks in the first half.
— Don Williams (@AJ_DonWilliams) November 28, 2020
Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa: The younger Tagovailoa has had two good games at Maryland. He’s also had two bad games. Saturday was one of his bad games. Tagovailoa was 17-of-36 passing for 241 yards and a touchdown and three interceptions in the Terrapins’ 27-11 loss to Indiana. Tagovailoa threw three picks in a season-opening loss to Northwestern. In between then and today, he had three touchdowns in two games.
UNLV: It’s been a bad season for the Rebels in Year 1 under Marcus Arroyo. UNLV lost 45-14 to Wyoming on Friday to drop to 0-5. UNLV has scored more than 20 points just once in 2020 and that was in a 40-27 defeat to Fresno State. Sadly, that was the closest game all season for UNLV too. Three of the Rebels’ five losses have come by 20 points or more. Things don’t get much easier the rest of the way with a game against Boise State and a trip to Hawaii remaining.
Eastern Michigan: The Eagles were up 20-6 on Central Michigan at the end of the third quarter on Friday. The Eagles lost 31-23 to the Chippewas. CMU scored 25 points in the fourth quarter to flip a 14-point deficit into an eight-point win thanks to three consecutive turnovers by EMU. The Eagles were leading 23-21 with 4:34 to go when Samson Evans fumbled. CMU then turned that into a field goal and a one point lead. Two interceptions from QB Preston Hutchinson followed as CMU scored with 1:43 to go to win by eight.
UMass: At least the Minutemen played football? The four-game UMass fall schedule came to an end on Friday with a 45-0 loss at Liberty. UMass finishes its abbreviated season at 0-4 and scored 12 points all season. Yes, really. UMass was outscored 161-12 over 2020 as it decided to play football as a fill-in for teams needing to schedule games. Is being a punching bag better than sitting out the season completely? It’s a question with no good answer.
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