College football preview: Spoiler teams have their sights set on playoff contenders
Probably at least 10 teams are still in the mix for a College Football Playoff berth, but some will be tested Saturday.
With three weeks left in the regular season, a few teams that had hopes of contending for one of the four berths in the College Football Playoff have been eliminated, whittling down the field from which the CFP selection committee will choose.
As we enter Week 11, it appears that at least 10 teams remain in the mix. Sorry, Central Florida, that doesn't include you despite the fact that you finally beat a team with a winning record in Temple but gave up 670 yards, prompting CFP committee chair Rob Mullens to remark, "You could see the defensive struggles."
Some spoilers will be at work in Saturday's games, the most realistic in our view being Auburn at No. 5 Georgia, Oklahoma State at No. 6 Oklahoma, Colorado home against No. 8 Washington State, and Michigan State hosting No. 10 Ohio State.
Quarterback Ian Book might not be able to play for No. 3 Notre Dame because of a reported rib injury suffered against Northwestern, but we can't see Florida State being much of a threat, especially on the road.
The Wildcats’ next step
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a reason to be proud. His program has the highest graduation rate of all FBS teams. He says his players get placed in the job of their choice within six months of graduation, and sometimes even before they leave.
But there's a next step, and that's on the field where the Wildcats play a vital game at Iowa as they continue their bid for their first-ever Big Ten West championship. They enter with a one-game lead over Wisconsin and Purdue, but hold the tiebreaker over each, having defeated both teams.
"You go to the last month of the season with an opportunity to take the next step," Fitzgerald said, "and we don't hide away from it, we want to win the West. We haven't made that step yet, and that obviously would be one of the next steps."
How about those Panthers?
We haven't seen the Pitt Panthers since that rainy September night at Heinz Field where Penn State delivered a 51-6 defeat on them. But they've steadily improved, and wins over a pair of ranked teams – Syracuse and Virginia – have given them the inside track on the ACC Coastal Division title.
The Panthers are 5-4 overall but 4-1 in the division going into Saturday's home game against Virginia Tech. A win over the Hokies means they would hold the tiebreaker edge over their two closest pursuers – the Hokies and Virginia.
"Our guys have talked about it," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said on Wednesday's ACC coaches' call. "Nobody respected us early in the year and we were a forgotten team. Don't forget how you got where you are. It's hard work. It's the blue-collar way, it's the Pittsburgh way. Hopefully our guys continue to understand why they're where they are."
Bulldogs’ big challenge
Joe Moorhead made his name nationally in his two years as Penn State's offensive coordinator and was hired last November by Mississippi State. However, it's the Bulldogs' defense that has been in the spotlight all season, and will be once again when it goes up against the dominant offense of No. 1 Alabama.
In nine games, the Bulldogs are allowing an average of 12.3 points. They have given up an FBS-low nine offensive touchdowns, with two of them coming on their opponent's last 51 possessions. Defensive end Montez Sweat has 12 tackles for loss, including 9 ½ sacks.
But now comes Alabama. Mississippi State has allowed 111 points this season. The Crimson Tide has scored 171 points in the first quarter. They are averaging 565.6 total yards per game, best in the nation, while the Bulldogs are giving up 278.7 (sixth).
"You don't have to play a perfect game, but got to be darn near close," Moorhead said this week. "You've got to be in that range because they're not going to beat themselves and they're very well-coached."
Return of the dropkick (!)
Ruan Venter, a former rugby player from South Africa and a punter for Shepherd University, a Division II school in West Virginia, used to dropkick for fun during practices.
That fun turned into a competitive advantage for Shepherd two weeks ago when Venter successfully dropkicked three extra points against West Virginia Wesleyan. He is the first player known to have scored on a dropkick since Matt Newman of Division III Illinois College in 2013.
"I had no idea about the history of it," Venter said in an Associated Press story. "I did dropkicks my whole life, and by doing them again I thought about back home doing dropkicks with my friends. Maybe I miss it a little bit, but it also made me excited I could bring that kind of kicking back into the game, making the people happy and making some history as well."
The dropkick was a big part of football in the days of leather helmets. When the ball evolved in the 1930s, it made it easier to throw a pass, but the dropkick became more difficult because the more pointy ends made the bounce off the drop unpredictable.
Expatriate of the week
It hasn't been a very good season for Rutgers but Raheem Blackshear, a sophomore running back out of Archbishop Wood High School, has been a bright spot on offense. The 5-foot-9, 192-pound Blackshear caught eight passes for 162 yards and a touchdown last week in the Scarlet Knights' 31-17 loss at Wisconsin while adding 38 rushing yards on 10 carries. For the season, he has gained 437 yards rushing with two touchdowns, and has caught a team-high 35 passes for 316 yards and two scores.
Games of the week
Mississippi State at Alabama, 3:30 p.m., CBS3: With a berth in the SEC title game already clinched, you have to figure Nick Saban is looking forward to keeping the Crimson Tide sharp by going up against a Bulldogs defense that is second in the nation in points allowed.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, 3:30 p.m., 6ABC: With no marquee wins to show the College Football Playoff selection committee, the Sooners have no margin for error. The Cowboys, who lead FBS in sacks, will need to put heat on quarterback Kyler Murray to have a chance.
Auburn at Georgia, 7 p.m., ESPN: While the Tigers can't do anything about keeping the Bulldogs and archrival Alabama out of the SEC championship contest, they can be a major spoiler in wrecking their opponents' hopes for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Florida State at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC10: Reports are that Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book will be sidelined with a rib injury suffered against Northwestern. That means Brandon Wimbush, who opened the season as the starter, will be at the controls if Book can't go.
Clemson at Boston College, 8 p.m., 6ABC: Things should be a little crazy in Chestnut Hill with ESPN's College GameDay in town — along with the nation's No. 2 team. The Tigers, who can clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title, have seemed unstoppable, but the Eagles will battle.
Jerry Jeudy, Alabama, WR, 6-1, 192, So., Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Jeudy, like his fellow wide receivers on the top-ranked Crimson Tide, has benefited from the accuracy and the explosive-play ability of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. He has caught 39 passes for 880 yards, good for a 22.6-yard average, and has 16 catches of 20 yards or more. He is third in FBS in receiving yards and tied for third with 10 touchdown catches. He caught a season-high eight passes for 103 yards in Saturday's win over Louisiana State.