College football preview: Notre Dame with a tough matchup; Penn State looks to move up
The Fighting Irish have a tough test Saturday against No. 12 Syracuse as they try to hold on to their No. 3 College Football Playoff ranking.
This week's Top 10 in the College Football Playoff standings is the same as last week's Top 10. The top-four team that appears to be in the most jeopardy Saturday is Notre Dame, which will face rejuvenated Syracuse at Yankee Stadium.
No. 5 Georgia and No. 6 Oklahoma, both heavy favorites in their games, are waiting in the wings if any of the first four falter. The Bulldogs appear to be right on No. 4 Michigan's heels, but CFP committee chair Rob Mullens gave one inquiring reporter a ringing endorsement of the Wolverines, at least for now.
"Michigan has a very strong resume," Mullens said. "They've won nine games in a row, only loss is to the No. 3-ranked team [Notre Dame] on the board in the first game of the year. They've got wins over Northwestern at Northwestern, at Michigan State, and a dominant win over Penn State, [and] the No. 1 defense in the country."
The Wolverines will host Indiana, and then prepare for next week's showdown against Ohio State to determine the Big Ten East representative in the conference title game.
The three-loss battle
The CFP selection committee lined up eight three-loss teams that it ranked 13th through 20th. Florida is at the top of the list, followed by Penn State and Texas. The Nittany Lions actually jumped over the Longhorns after being ranked behind them last week.
The top 12 teams on Dec. 2 will be chosen for the New Year's Six bowls, two of which — the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl — serve as CFP semifinal sites. The list of teams would be reduced to 11 if Central Florida falls out of the top 12, given that one spot is reserved for the highest-ranked champion from a Group of Five conference.
As for the Gators, Mullens cited their tough schedule and the fact that they defeated Louisiana State as reasons for putting them at No. 13. He conceded that "they haven't been the same team" the last three weeks, but got back on track last week by beating South Carolina.
The Nittany Lions will finish with two winnable games, against Rutgers and Maryland. It will be interesting to see where they're positioned by the committee in the final three rankings.
The Irish national tour
Notre Dame is the middle of a national tour that started three weeks ago in San Diego (vs. Navy) and continued in Evanston, Ill. (vs. Northwestern) before last week's home game against Florida State.
Now the Fighting Irish are in the Bronx for Saturday's game against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, and that will be followed by their regular-season finale against Southern California in Los Angeles.
Head coach Brian Kelly said he has tried to limit his team's travel once it reaches its destination.
"We have not visited stadiums. We've gone right to the hotel," he said. "We've changed up that routine, which saves us a good hour. It gives us another hour or so at the hotel to rest, stretch, nutrition, recovery."
This will be Notre Dame's 27th game in Yankee Stadium, but only its second in the new facility. The Irish also have played in the city at the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and Shea Stadium. They have played 14 games across the Hudson at Giants Stadium and MetLife Stadium.
The Orange spark
It's been quite a journey for Eric Dungey, who wasn't highly recruited before he matriculated, from Lake Oswego, Ore., at Syracuse in 2015 and was pushed into action in the season opener of his freshman year after an injury to the starting quarterback.
Now a senior and trying to lead the Orange to their first 10-win season since 2001, Dungey holds or shares 16 team records and has rolled up 10,594 yards in total offense for his career. At 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds, he is also a punishing runner and needs just 71 yards to reach 2,000 rushing yards for his career.
"I think it's the confidence I have in myself," Dungey said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I was under-recruited. Our confidence wasn't as high as it should have been. I just put everything I had into this team, this school. It just feels good to finally get some wins out of it."
The penultimate weekend of the SEC regular season usually comes with its share of mismatches as teams pay a high-six-figure (or maybe a seven-figure) guarantee to a lesser team to provide a tune-up for the rest of the season and postseason.
Two teams are hosting FCS (formerly Division I-AA) teams: Alabama vs. The Citadel and Florida against Idaho. Two other apparent no-doubt games are Georgia, a 42-point favorite, hosting Massachusetts and Auburn (minus-27 ½) playing Liberty.
However, two other games feature a pair of the best Conference USA teams that won't be pushovers: UAB (9-1) at Texas A&M and Middle Tennessee State (7-3) traveling to Kentucky.
The most intriguing contest would be UMass, with former Eagles assistant Mark Whipple, now in his second head-coaching term with the Minutemen, against the Bulldogs in a battle of explosive offenses. UMass was competitive against the SEC last year, losing by only 17-13 to Tennessee. Minutemen senior Andy Isabella leads the nation in receiving yards with 1,479.
Expatriate of the week
Sophomore tailback D'Andre Swift, who starred at St. Joseph's Prep, enjoyed one of the best days of his career last week in Georgia's 27-10 victory over Auburn. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound Swift rushed for a personal-best 186 yards on 17 carries and scored on a 77-yard run. He became the third player in Bulldogs history, and first since Herschel Walker in 1980, to have two touchdown runs of 75 yards or more in a single season. Swift is Georgia's leading rusher with 808 yards and a 6.9-yard average per carry.
Games of the week
Northwestern at Minnesota, noon, Big Ten Network: We're thinking Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is hoping that the Wildcats win out. Should they lose to the Golden Gophers, and next week to Illinois, the Cats would be 6-6 heading into the conference championship game — not a good look.
Syracuse vs. Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, 2:30 p.m. NBC10: The Fighting Irish want to remain undefeated and continue in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. Eric Dungey and the Orange want to remain on track for their first 10-win season since 2001 and a New Year's Six bowl.
West Virginia at Oklahoma State, 3:30 p.m., 6ABC: With victories in their final three games, the Mountaineers will be on the doorstep for a CFP berth, and can walk right in if the teams above them falter. The Cowboys might be the nation's scariest 5-5 team, especially at home.
Cincinnati at Central Florida, 8 p.m., 6ABC: The host Knights seek to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 23 games and continue their never-ending quest for respect from the members of the CFP selection committee. The Bearcats defense will test UCF's high-powered offense.
Arizona at Washington State, 10:30 p.m., ESPN: Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew II has thrown 523 passes this season, and no other FBS quarterback has thrown as many as 400. He'll have to hit his fair share of passes against the upset-minded Wildcats for Washington State to stay in CFP consideration.
Will Grier, West Virginia, QB, 6-2, 223, R-Sr., Charlotte, N.C.
Grier has been the maestro of the Mountaineers' dynamic passing attack, which is No. 5 in the nation. He is third in FBS in passing efficiency and also ranks in the top 10 in passing yards per game (329.0), touchdown throws (31), completion percentage (69.0), and total passing yards (2,961). He has thrown three TD passes in each of the last three weeks, and 11 receivers have caught a scoring pass from him.