Forde-Yard Dash: Which undefeated contenders will survive October?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where firing season is upon us before September is even over:

OCTOBER: WHEN CONTENDERS COLLIDE

In a sport that occasionally struggles to settle it on the field during the regular season, we are in for a great month ahead. Why? Because a whole bunch of undefeated teams are about to run into each other, at least theoretically helping whittle the College Football Playoff field to a manageable size.

A couple of changes to the scheduling cycle helped make this happen in two major conferences. In the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee and Texas A&M meet for the first time as members of the same league. In the Big Ten, Wisconsin and Michigan square off for the first time since 2010, and the Badgers also face Ohio State after a two-year regular-season hiatus.

The Dash takes a look at the month to come for 10 ranked unbeatens that will play at least one other undefeated team:

Alabama (1). The schedule: Kentucky on Oct. 1, at Arkansas on Oct. 8, at Tennessee on Oct. 15, Texas A&M on Oct. 22. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 8. Back-to-back road games against the Razorbacks and Volunteers are difficult, but then you add the Aggies – who are coming off a bye – the next week and that’s rugged. The Crimson Tide won’t need running back Damien Harris (sprained ankle) against his home-state team this weekend, but could certainly use him for the other three games. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 7-1. Alabama has lost at least one SEC game each of the last six seasons; why should this year be any different?

Tennessee (2). The schedule: at Georgia on Oct. 1, at Texas A&M on Oct. 8, Alabama on Oct. 15, at South Carolina on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 9. When the only home game of the month is against Alabama, it’s tough. Tennessee must quickly get back down to business after the cathartic second-half blowout of Florida on Saturday. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 7-1. The Volunteers are dropping one of their first three October games. But they likely will be able to survive that and still win the East.

Texas A&M (3). The schedule: at South Carolina on Oct. 1, Tennessee on Oct. 8, at Alabama on Oct. 22, New Mexico State on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 8. Playing the Vols and Tide consecutively is a major challenge, but the week off in between helps. Kevin Sumlin has been Mr. September, now he has to show he can sustain the mojo through the season’s second month, too. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 7-1. If the Aggies can keep quarterback Trevor Knight to 25 or fewer highly efficient passes, and get big plays from him on the ground – both of which happened last weekend against Arkansas – they will be difficult to stop.

Michigan (4). The schedule: Wisconsin on Oct. 1, at Rutgers on Oct. 8, Illinois on Oct. 22, at Michigan State on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 7. Tough at the beginning and end, but when the first road trip of the year is to Rutgers, that’s a nice break. Coach Jim Harbaugh did have this to say Monday about facing strongman Wisconsin: “I’m wondering if the field is going to be wide enough.” Predicted record on Nov. 1: 8-0. If quarterback Wilton Speight’s current 113-pass streak without an interception continues through Saturday, the Wolverines will beat the Badgers. And if the Michigan punter doesn’t drop a crucial snap Oct. 29, they’ll beat the Spartans, too.

Ohio State (5). The schedule: Rutgers on Oct. 1, Indiana on Oct. 8, at Wisconsin on Oct. 15, at Penn State on Oct. 22, Northwestern on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 7. Tougher than it appears at first glance. There is no bye week, and both the Badgers and Nittany Lions will be coming off byes. Ohio State is only 3-2 in its last five trips to Madison, and none of the wins was by more than a touchdown. And the 2014 eventual national champions were taken to double overtime in Happy Valley as two-touchdown favorites. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 8-0. Buckeyes would have to beat themselves at Penn State. Wisconsin is the most dangerous one, but Ohio State should be up to the challenge for that.

These QBs will have ample opportunity to impact the playoff picture in October. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
These QBs will have ample opportunity to impact the playoff picture in October. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Wisconsin (6). The schedule: at Michigan on Oct. 1, Ohio State on Oct. 15, at Iowa on Oct. 22, Nebraska on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 10. The combined record of the Badgers’ opponents is 14-1. And nobody else in the West has to play consecutive games against Michigan and Ohio State. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 6-2. Given the gauntlet, that would be a very good record through eight games. Wisconsin would be poised to finish 10-2 with a very manageable November.

Nebraska (7). The schedule: Illinois on Oct. 1, at Indiana on Oct. 15, Purdue on Oct. 22, at Wisconsin on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 5. Other than visiting Camp Randall, this is about as easy as it gets in the Big Ten in 2016. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 7-1. The Dash would still not be convinced the Cornhuskers were really good with that record, but it could have them first in the West heading into a challenging final month.

Louisville (8). The schedule: at Clemson on Oct. 1, Duke on Oct. 14, North Carolina State on Oct. 22, at Virginia on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 7. It’s a one-game month for the Cardinals, but that game is in Death Valley – a place where only 2013 eventual national champion Florida State has won in the last three years. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 8-0. Clemson’s defense is outstanding and will challenge Lamar Jackson to throw accurately and make the correct reads. But Louisville’s defense also will challenge a Tigers offense that underperformed all September.

Clemson (9). The schedule: Louisville on Oct. 1, at Boston College on Oct. 7, North Carolina State on Oct. 15, at Florida State on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 8. The Cardinals at the beginning and Seminoles at the end will tell the tale of whether Clemson has a shot at a repeat CFP berth. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 7-1. If it happens that way, with a loss to Louisville and a win in Tallahassee, the Tigers would need some major November help to derail the Cardinals and win the Atlantic Division.

(Of note: Miami has a chance to slide through October still unbeaten, and November isn’t that difficult for the Hurricanes. Look out for Mark Richt.)

Houston (10). The schedule: Connecticut on Sept. 29, at Navy on Oct. 8, Tulsa on Oct. 15, at SMU on Oct. 22, Central Florida on Oct. 29. Overall October difficulty on scale of 1-10: 4. The Cougars squeeze in one more September game Thursday night against UConn, then face unbeaten Navy in Annapolis. Tulsa is not bad, and UCF is regaining respectability. But still: every other unbeaten on this list would trade Octobers with Houston in a heartbeat. Predicted record on Nov. 1: 9-0. That would set up a big finish, hosting Louisville on Nov. 17 and at Memphis on Nov. 25.

AND ON THE FINAL DAY OF SEPTEMBER, A BIG ONE OUT WEST

There is one other unbeaten vs. unbeaten game to monitor between now and November, and it happens Friday in Seattle when reigning Pac-12 boss Stanford (11) visits aspiring Pac-12 boss Washington (12). First one to 20 points wins in a matchup of the top two scoring defenses in the league.

Both had to survive harrowing road tests Saturday against Pac-12 South opponents – the Cardinal scoring the winning touchdown in the final minute to beat UCLA, the Huskies prevailing at Arizona in overtime. This is the kind of game Washington hired Chris Petersen to win, and in Year Three he might have the team to do it. And if the Huskies do win, this could be the ticket to their first Pac-12 North title.

STARS OF SEPTEMBER

Looking back at the month that was, and noting who stood out and who shrank:

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson faces his biggest test yet Saturday when the Cardinals take on Clemson. (Getty)
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson faces his biggest test yet Saturday when the Cardinals take on Clemson. (Getty)

Breakout quarterback: Lamar Jackson (13), Louisville. Analysts nationwide have been picking their jaws up out of their laps since Jackson first served notice of his potential in last year’s Music City Bowl. Since then he’s only gotten better, with an improved grasp of Bobby Petrino’s offense and an improved supporting cast. He has accounted for an absurd 25 touchdowns in four games, catapulting himself from intriguing talent to Heisman Trophy front-runner.

Breakout running back: Donnel Pumphrey (14), San Diego State. That’s an unfair characterization of a guy who came into the season with more than 4,000 career rushing yards, but in a year full of elite running backs not many were talking about Pumphrey in August. Now they are. He’s the nation’s leading rusher with 599 yards in just three games, and the Aztecs are an undefeated team with a great chance for a 12-0 regular season.

Breakout all-purpose player: Jabrill Peppers (15), Michigan. Like Pumphrey, Peppers wasn’t exactly a secret entering 2016. But he’s become even more versatile and impactful as a sophomore than he was as a freshman. You do not find football players with 9 ½ tackles for loss who also average 23 yards per punt return. Anywhere. Ever.

Breakout freshman: Ed Oliver (16), Houston. In his first college game, Tom Herman’s hometown recruiting coup blew up Oklahoma’s offensive line. Since then opponents have game-planned more to account for him, but the athletic defensive lineman still has accounted for 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks while defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has lined him up in a variety of places. Houston leads the nation in rushing defense, and Oliver is a significant part of that.

Breakout coach: Paul Chryst (17), Wisconsin. He won 10 games in his first season at Wisconsin, but nobody was taking the Badgers or Chryst overly seriously coming into this year. Then he beat LSU in Lambeau and Michigan State in East Lansing, and all that has changed. Chryst is more Madison than State Street Brats, a homebody coaching his alma mater in a manner wholly consistent with the Barry Alvarez archetype. And it’s working splendidly.

SEPTEMBER SORROW

Who busted big-time in the opening month:

Big 12 (18). In the long history of the College Football Playoff (OK, two years), no conference has recused itself as quickly from contention as the Big 12 has this year. Within three weeks, the league was basically done. Yeah, there’s still a chance unbeaten West Virginia or Baylor could squeak in, but it would take a 12-0 record and probably some help from other leagues cannibalizing their top contenders. Combine that with the tortured ongoing expansion process and you have a conference that is having a real-time crisis.

Notre Dame (19). Losing to Texas in the opener was a bummer, but not completely unforeseen. Falling behind Michigan State 36-7 at home was a bigger bummer, and not even a furious comeback to make it close could sweep that aside. But then losing at home to a Duke team that lost to Northwestern, which lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State? That’s a disaster, and it cost defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder his job Sunday. Head coach Brian Kelly had banked a lot of credit in his first six years by restoring the Fighting Irish to prominence, but he’s now blowing through it at an alarming rate in Year Seven.

Greater Los Angeles (20). The season began with UCLA ranked 16th and USC 20th in the AP poll. Today they are both unranked and a combined 3-5, with victories over UNLV, Utah State and BYU. The Bruins, led by hugely touted quarterback Josh Rosen, are next-to-last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense. The Trojans, returning 10 offensive starters from last year, are last. Los Angeles Rams, the stage is all yours.

Gunner Kiel (21). The guy who came out of high school as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in America, according to Rivals.com and other sites – ahead of Jameis Winston and others – is now holding a clipboard as a fifth-year senior at Cincinnati. Kiel is a third-stringer who has yet to see action this season, backing up sophomore Hayden Moore and freshman Ross Trail.

NEXT IN BATON ROUGE

With the jarring Sunday news that Les Miles was out at LSU, speculation has immediately ramped up about who will be the next coach to take over what is universally considered a Cadillac job. At almost exactly the same time Monday, Bobby Petrino and Jimbo Fisher were answering questions about the LSU vacancy at their weekly news conferences. But what’s said in September could be disposable by November or December, so stay tuned to these four names:

Would Jimbo Fisher consider leaving Florida State for LSU? (AP)
Would Jimbo Fisher consider leaving Florida State for LSU? (AP)

Jimbo Fisher (22). The Florida State coach and former LSU assistant was widely rumored to be the presumptive replacement when the school bungled its 2015 coaching coup. Fisher has a national championship and has averaged more than 11 victories per year in six seasons as a head coach. He’s been a Saban assistant – the most successful of them to date, in fact – and theoretically could find the necessary formula to dethrone the emperor of the SEC West. But he’s got a very good gig already, in a less difficult league, with access to championship-level talent. Maybe seven years in Tallahassee is enough and he’s ready for another challenge, but he would have to think hard before jumping.

Tom Herman (23). Yes, he only has 18 games as a head coach, but he’s won 17 of them and the 41-year-old leader of Houston shows all the earmarks of being the next superstar in the profession – Urban 2.0, if you will. If he’s on top of LSU’s list, the school could have competition. If Texas moves on from Charlie Strong, Herman could be the top choice there as well at one of the few jobs that is better than LSU.

Bobby Petrino (24). Twelve years ago, Petrino interviewed behind Louisville’s back for the LSU job that ultimately went to Miles. He didn’t get it then, but could conceivably get it now. Petrino is proving his offensive acumen all over again now in his second stint at Louisville and would certainly be attractive to a program that has stagnated offensively in recent years. But if Petrino has a loyal bone in his body, he will stay at the school that gave him both his first chance and a second chance after scandal derailed his career. Petrino and those around him have professed him to be a changed man; this could be the chance to find out.

Art Briles (25). Offensive savant, yes. Damaged goods, yes. If LSU has any interest in going that route, it would need a very good explanation for the women on campus and protest groups that surely would come to campus.

Meanwhile, the literal next in Baton Rouge is America’s interim coach, Ed Orgeron (26). The Louisiana native is in his dream job, for at least a few weeks. He did a nice job as the USC interim coach three years ago and was crushed when he didn’t get the full-time job, which instead went to Steve Sarkisian. (That ended well.) Unless Orgeron and LSU go undefeated and beat Alabama, he will not get serious consideration for the full-time job.

There also is this employment reminder at LSU: Basketball coach Johnny Jones (27), who did a breathtakingly poor job of capitalizing on No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons last season and missed the NCAA tournament, is still employed. Les Miles and his championship ring are out. Guess which sport is more important at LSU?

UNBEATEN AND UNRANKED

Nine teams have yet to lose, but have yet to feel the love from pollsters. A quick appraisal of their legitimacy:

Wake Forest (28). Record: 4-0. Best win: at Indiana on Saturday. The Demon Deacons are 4-0 for the first time in a decade and haven’t yet trailed in the second half this season. Dave Clawson has methodically gotten the program up off the deck, with a strong defense and a gradually improving offense. This unbeaten run won’t last forever – perhaps not even past a Saturday visit to North Carolina State – but Wake is well-positioned for its first bowl bid since 2011.

Navy (29). Record: 3-0. Best win: over Connecticut Sept. 10. The Midshipmen have a long-established winning formula and this team is adhering to it as well. But the competition has been very light to date. That will change very quickly, with three unbeaten opponents in the next four weeks.

Memphis (30). Record: 3-0. Best win: Beating Power 5 opponent (in name, at least) Kansas 43-7. The Tigers have been impressive in their first year under Mike Norvell, losing little from the momentum established by Justin Fuente before he moved on to Virginia Tech, or quarterback Paxton Lynch before he moved on to the NFL. Memphis beat Bowling Green 77-3, seven points worse than Ohio State beat the Falcons to start the season. The proof will be in The Grove pudding Saturday, however, when the Tigers play at Mississippi.

West Virginia (31). Record: 3-0. Best win: Convincing takedown of SEC member Missouri in the season opener. The Mountaineers haven’t yet played in front of a hostile crowd or played a true high-level opponent, and haven’t won a game by more than 17 points yet. But they could pile up a couple more wins with the next two games against Kansas State (home) and Texas Tech (road) before then hosting TCU. Probably not built for championship contention, even in an underwhelming league.

The Mountaineers have given their fans plenty to cheer about early this season. (Getty)
The Mountaineers have given their fans plenty to cheer about early this season. (Getty)

Maryland (32). Record: 3-0. Best win: 41-14 at Florida International Sept. 10. The Terrapins needed double overtime to beat Central Florida, so there clearly is a lot of work to be done. But new coach D.J. Durkin has completed his first month on the job without a loss or even a single turnover, and that’s something to build on. Maryland has a soft launch into Big Ten play, with Purdue visiting Saturday and then games at Penn State (where the Terps won in 2014) and home against Minnesota. There is an opportunity to put last year’s 3-9 in the rear-view mirror.

Minnesota (33). Record: 3-0. Best win: 30-23 over Oregon State in the season opener. The Gophers have wins over three teams that have zero quality wins of their own, so it’s hard to get overly excited about the start – except for the fact that it beats losing. Hopes of a more explosive passing game have yet to materialize – Minnesota doesn’t have a single completion longer than 32 yards to date. But there are plenty of winnable games left on a schedule that does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State.

Western Michigan (34). Record: 4-0. Best win: 22-21 at Northwestern to open the season and set the tone for what could be the best season in school history. With two wins over Big Ten opponents, it might already be. Like Maryland, Western Michigan has yet to commit a turnover on the season and is plus-seven in turnover margin. With quality playmakers at quarterback, running back and receiver, the Broncos should be able to move the ball on everyone. The next game is big: at rival Central Michigan, which itself was unbeaten until last week. After that it could be clear sailing until the regular-season finale against Toledo.

Toledo (35). Record: 3-0. Best win: 52-17 over Fresno State. The Rockets promoted assistant Jason Candle after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State, and the momentum from last year’s 10-2 season has continued. Toledo has outscored three opponents 62-6 in the first half, winning three blowouts. What’s really amazing is that Toledo has done that without generating a single takeaway so far. If it can somehow win at BYU on Friday night, why not dare to dream of going undefeated?

Air Force (36). Record: 3-0. Best win: 27-20 at Utah State last Saturday. The Falcons don’t exactly have a statement victory to date, but that opportunity arrives Saturday against rival Navy. The surprise 2015 winners of the Mountain West Conference Mountain Division may well be in contention again this year, with a season finale against Boise State that could decide it.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Butch Jones (37), Tennessee. For 3 ½ games this season, the Volunteers did almost nothing to back up the preseason Top 10 ranking and predictions of an SEC East title. That was especially true when they trailed nemesis Florida 21-3 at halftime in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. “I know there were a lot of people that didn’t want me here at halftime,” Jones said Monday. “I get that part of the job.” They’re OK with him hanging around Knoxville a while longer now, after Tennessee dropped a 35-7 pile-driver second half on the Gators and finally unchained the potential of its offense. That sets the stage for a high-risk, high-reward October that could finally put the Vols back in SEC championship contention (see above). For Jones, this was precisely what he’s been building toward. For the fans who wanted to hate him for 3 ½ games, it’s time to get excited again.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Kirby Smart (38), Georgia. The school fired a coach who won 10 or more games nine times to hire Smart off Saban’s staff at Alabama. The new savior got off to a 3-0 start that included a horrible win over FCS Nicholls State and a lucky escape at Missouri – and then came the trip to Mississippi on Saturday. Georgia trailed 45-0 before finally getting on the board, and lost 45-14. Mark Richt had some bad losses – but few if any as bad as that. And it only took Smart four games to get there.

POINT AFTER

When hungry and thirsty in the home base of Louisville, The Dash strongly recommends the peerless chicken wings and assorted other smoked meats from Momma’s BBQ (39). And if you need a fresh beer, try a Sierra Nevada Hoppy Wheat IPA (40) from the brewery’s fall variety pack. Thank The Dash later.

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