College football preview: The big question at season’s midway point, who can beat Alabama?
The unbeaten and top-ranked Crimson Tide appear to be a lock for a spot in the College Football Playoff. But the CFP race could shape up to be a wild one in the second half.
Welcome to the second half of the 2018 college football season, where the predominant question remains: Can anybody beat Alabama?
The Crimson Tide, currently averaging 53.6 points and 567 total yards per game behind quarterback Tua Tagovailoa going into Saturday's game at Tennessee, still have to play at Louisiana State but they get Mississippi State and Auburn at home, followed by the SEC championship game.
Georgia, which lost to LSU last week, can control its own destiny with games coming up against the SEC's other two one-loss teams, Florida and Kentucky. But the Crimson Tide were forgiven for their slipup against Auburn last year while still making the College Football Playoff, and the same scenario could happen this year.
Speaking of the playoff, Notre Dame could find a way to squeeze into the tournament if it can win out, and it will be favored in its final five games. For that to happen, one of the likely conference champions in the field – Alabama, Clemson (ACC), Oklahoma (Big 12) and Ohio State or Michigan (Big Ten) – would need to fall in the second half.
Tagovailoa is the runaway Heisman Trophy favorite at the halfway point, with two other quarterbacks – Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma's Kyler Murray – waiting in the wings if Tagovailoa should have a sudden reversal, which isn't likely to happen.
One of the more intriguing matchups on the schedule is Saturday night's game between Ohio State and Purdue. The Boilermakers have the dynamic combination of quarterback David Blough to freshman Rondale Moore, a pair that will worry Urban Meyer and his sometimes leaky Buckeye defense.
In his last four games, Blough has completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards (393.3-yard average) and 10 touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 174-pound Moore has 45 catches for 558 yards, with 18 receptions of 20 yards or longer. He is fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards and averages 13.8 yards per touch.
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As a team, Purdue has 17 plays that have gone for 40 yards or longer.
"When you can create some plays and big chunk yards, it not only gets you down the field faster, it gives you momentum," Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. "It gives your players confidence and that is what we are trying to do every game, is create as many big plays as we can get."
The two lowest yardage totals of the season for Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley have come against Pittsburgh and Michigan State. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi used to be the Spartans' defensive coordinator on the staff of head coach Mark Dantonio.
"Yes, we talked to Pat," Dantonio said at his weekly news conference. "I think [defensive coordinator] Mike Tressel talked to coach Narduzzi a little bit and through text a little. I think that's sort of common. You look for people that are similar in what you've done, those type of things, and you look to see how people play people."
McSorley averages 281 yards of total offense per game, but he compiled just 181 in the rain at Pitt and 229 last week against the Spartans.
The ACC unbeatens
Clemson hosts North Carolina State in a battle of ACC Atlantic Division unbeatens, and the game could come down to one play as it has in each of the previous two seasons, both times in the Tigers' favor.
In 2016, the Wolfpack missed a 33-yard field goal as time expired and lost in overtime. A Clemson interception on the final play of last season's contest secured a 38-31 win.
North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren is counting on not having the game again come down to one play.
"I have said, 'Every rep matters' to these guys for the past two years," he said Wednesday on the ACC coaches call. "I've probably said that as much as I've said anything. You don't know what the play is that can cost you or win you a game. You have to approach it that way."
Two notable stats for the Wolfpack: They lead the nation in third-down conversion percentage at 60.9, and quarterback Ryan Finley has been sacked only twice. Finley, a sixth-year player, ranks in the FBS top 10 in passing yards (324.2 per game) and completions (26 per contest).
On the skids
The fall from the top 10 has been a swift one for Auburn. Once ranked as high as seventh, the Tigers have fallen off the map completely following back-to-back losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee. Not a single voter cast a ballot for them this week.
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Coach Gus Malzahn said that his players "are playing their guts out" but have not been able to make the big play when needed. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham, considered one of the SEC's best at the start of the season, was intercepted twice against Tennessee and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
Expatriates of the Week
A pair of Philadelphia area players have helped Maine get off to a 3-0 start in the CAA. Sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson, a La Salle College High graduate, has completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 683 yards and seven touchdowns in four games. Former Clearview Regional High star Sterling Sheffield, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior linebacker, leads the Black Bears with 7 ½ sacks and 10 tackles for loss while ranking second in tackles.
Games of the Week
Michigan at Michigan State, noon, Fox29: The Spartans have won eight of the last 10 meetings against their intrastate rival, and Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh (1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State) knows the heat is on. However, he may hold the advantage here with one of the nation's best defenses.
Oklahoma at Texas Christian, noon, 6ABC: A rematch of last year's Big 12 title game, this contest pits a Sooners team that allowed 48 points against Texas and then fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, against a Horned Frogs squad that has scored 17 points or less in three consecutive games.
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North Carolina State at Clemson, 3:30 p.m., ESPN: The Tigers are balanced on both sides of the football but will have their hands full with Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley. State leads the nation in converting third downs (nearly 61 percent) but Clemson holds opponents to less than 28 percent on third down.
Mississippi State at Louisiana State, 7 p.m., ESPN: The Bulldogs lead the nation in points allowed (12.7 points per game) and are tops in the SEC in rushing (240.7 yards per game). However, the Tigers put up 36 points in their upset of Georgia last week and held down their opponent's strong rushing attack.
Ohio State at Purdue, 7:30 p.m., 6ABC: The Buckeyes have been allowing too many big plays of late to satisfy coach Urban Meyer, and now they face Boilermakers freshman Rondale Moore, who is fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards, averages 13.8 yards per touch, and has 18 plays of 20 yards or more.
Laviska Shenault, Colorado, WR, 6-2, 220, So., DeSoto, Texas
Shenault has emerged into one of the nation's top receivers. He has caught 60 passes (an FBS-high 10 per game) for 780 yards and six touchdowns. He also has been dangerous in his rushing opportunities, carrying the football 15 times for 87 yards and five TDs, mostly from the wildcat formation. Shenault is known for his dreadlocks, which he keeps long in honor of his father, who died in 2009.