Auburn edges Miss. State

Auburn stops No. 16 Mississippi State at the goal line to preserve wild 41-34 victory.

Upset Watch: Which Rivalries and Season Finales Will Go Sideways?

After a descent into the improbable last week in this space, we’re back to a saner look at this week’s games with upset potential. Ahead of a weekend of rivalry matchups with trips to conference championship games on the line, we’ll begin in Florida, where the football food chain has been turned upside-down. For the first time ever, UCF and USF are both ranked and Florida and Florida State (which tangle Saturday in Gainesville) are not. From there it’s off to Mississippi, where there’s not much at stake but pride, and Fresno, the site of an advance scouting chess match ahead of next week’s Mountain West championship.

Ole Miss at Mississippi State: Ole Miss has performed far better than anticipated in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s firing and months of looming NCAA sanctions. The Rebels are 5–6 going into their season finale after pushing Texas A&M to the limit in last week’s loss, and they beat a pretty good Kentucky team earlier this month. The school’s self-imposed postseason ban takes the six-win milestone off the table, but the Egg Bowl needs no further incentive than beating the hated rival to the south, especially when that rival’s players told the NCAA they received improper benefits on recruiting trips to Ole Miss.

Mississippi State is coming off a win over Arkansas—and before that it nearly pulled off the upset of Alabama—but it has been inconsistent at times this year, letting the Razorbacks nearly pull off a win and allowing UMass to come entirely too close to an upset earlier this month. Sure, the Bulldogs’ three losses are to the SEC’s best teams—Georgia, Alabama and Auburn—but in an emotional renewal of a storied rivalry, Ole Miss has the potential to rise to their level, especially since backup quarterback Jordan Ta’amu’s play since Shea Patterson went down with a season-ending injury has been a revelation.

USF at UCF: Thus continues my bid to upend an undefeated team every week. The War on I-4 pits the preseason darling in the American Athletic Conference (USF) against the current darling (UCF)—and both teams are very good. Scott Frost’s Knights have won every game but one by double digits, but this is going to be their toughest test of the year, with the winner claiming the AAC East and heading to the conference title game next week to take on Memphis with the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid hanging in the balance. USF played on Thursday last week, giving it two extra days of rest. Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers is arguably the best quarterback the Knights will face all year; if he can add to his streak of 10 straight 100-yard rushing performances, the UCF defense will have its hands full.

Fresno State vs. Boise State: Fresno State has been one of the best stories in the Mountain West this year, going from 1–11 in 2016 to 8–3 this season under first-year coach Jeff Tedford; Boise State sits at 9–2. Both teams have already clinched berths in next Saturday’s conference championship game, meaning this weekend’s matchup will be the first in a rare back-to-back series. The playing field is relatively even here; each have lost to both of their Power 5 opponents this year and beat San Diego State, accounting for the Aztecs’ only two losses. With the stakes this low and the game in Fresno, I have to go with the Bulldogs, who are still riding high after such a massive turnaround and would be thrilled to get to 10 wins with even a split of their two postseason games.

Alabama Stays Atop College Football Ranking Heading Into Rivalry Week

After a week in which a number of top teams played relatively easy opponents, Alabama remains atop the College Football Rankings after Week 12. The most notable change at the top was a flip-flop of ACC teams, as Miami leap-frogged Clemson to move into the No. 2 spot while Clemson. No. 4 Oklahoma is the final team currently in position to qualify four the four-team playoff.

The first two teams currently out are No. 5 Wisconsin, which bolstered its resume with a comfortable win over then-No. 25 Michigan, and No. 6 Auburn, which hosts No. 1 Alabama in an Iron Bowl matchup that will determine the SEC West winner on Saturday.

If Alabama beats Auburn, the Crimson Tide are virtually assured a playoff berth even if they lose to Georgia in the SEC title game. But if Auburn finds a way to pull off the upset this weekend, the committee will be forced to make a difficult decision on a one-loss Alabama team that did not win its conference.

Another SEC team lurks just outside the top four: No. 7 Georgia, which bounced back from a 40-17 defeat to Auburn with a 42-13 victory over Kentucky. Georgia has clinched the SEC West and likely still controls its own destiny. Should the Bulldogs take care of Georgia Tech this week then beat either Auburn or Alabama in the SEC title game, the Bulldogs will likely get a playoff spot.

Unbeaten Miami came back to beat Virginia 44–28 after trailing in the second half, while Clemson had no trouble with Citadel of the FBS. If Miami beats Pittsburgh this week and Clemson wins a tricky game at No. 24 South Carolina, the ACC's playoff picture will be relatively clear: the winner of the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 2, which will be between Miami and Clemson no matter what happens this weekend, will get a playoff spot.

No. 4 Oklahoma decidedly beat Kansas 41–3 last weekend, but it did not come without distraction: senior quarterback and Heisman front runner Baker Mayfield will not start his team's final regular season game against West Virginia after he grabbed his crotch, screaming profanities at the Jayhawks. If Oklahoma can get past West Virginia, all that will stand between the Sooners and a return to the Playoff is the Big 12 Championship game.

Wisconsin moved up after beating then-No. 24 Michigan. While it once appeared that Wisconsin might miss the playoff even if the Badgers went undefeated, the chaos at the top appears to have paved a path for the Badgers to reach the playoff should they win out. The Badgers will get the chance to post another much-needed impressive victory in the Big Ten championship game, which increasingly looks like it will come against No. 9 Ohio State. No. 10 Penn State's playoff hopes are virtually non-existent, as the Nittany Lions' loss to Ohio State gives the Buckeyes the edge in the Big Ten East.

The Pac-12 is the most likely Big Five conference to miss the playoff, as the conference's highest-ranked team is two-loss USC at No. 11. The Trojans have won four straight after they were embarrassed at Notre Dame, but they don't have many chances to score resume-boosting wins. Saturday's win over rival UCLA was USC's last game of the regular season, and the Trojans will play either No. 21 Stanford, No. 13 Washington State or No. 17 Washington in the Pac-12 title game. The Trojans aren't dead just yet, but Clay Helton's team needs more than a little help to sneak into the No. 4 spot.

The AAC championship game could well serve as a one-game playoff for the group-of-six conferences' guaranteed bid in a New Years Six bowl. No. 15 Central Florida is is leading the AAC East and is currently the highest ranked non-Power 5 team, while No. 20 Memphis is the second-highest ranked group-of-six team and leads the AAC West. Should those teams falter down the stretch, No. 25 Boise State of the Mountain West could claim the bid.

The full ranking is as follows:

1. Alabama (11-0, SEC)
2. Miami (10-0, ACC)
3. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (10-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (11-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (9-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (10-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (9-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (9-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (9-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (10-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (9-2, Big 12)
13. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)??
14. Mississippi State (8-3, SEC)
15. UCF (10-0, AAC)
16. Michigan State (8-3, Big Ten)
17. Washington (9-2, Pac 12)
18. LSU (8-3, SEC)
19. Oklahoma State (8-3, Big 12)
20. Memphis (9-1, AAC)
21. Stanford (8-3, Pac 12)
22. Northwestern (8-3, Big Ten)
23. Boise State (9-2, MWC)
24. South Carolina (8-3, SEC)
25. Virginia Tech (8-3, SEC)

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Your Day-by-Day Guide to the Busiest Week of the College Football Season

Between the coaching carousel and games that will help decide conference titles and playoff berths, this will be the busiest week of the season. Here’s a primer so you can pencil in some time to cook a turkey.

Monday-Wednesday

The Chip Kelly Sweepstakes

Florida officials flew to New Hampshire on Sunday to shoot their shot with Chip Kelly. Earlier in the day, UCLA fired Jim Mora. The Bruins also want a crack at Kelly. He may also have other options that we don’t yet know about. At some point, he will decide what he wants to do. (Insert your own puff of white smoke joke here.) That point probably will come before other coaches become available to talk. The first such coach is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, whose regular season ends with the Egg Bowl on Thursday.

Tennessee

If the Grumors are true and Jon Gruden becomes Tennessee’s next coach, I’ll have two bets to pay off.

I must eat a hat.

• This…

If the Grumors are true, that deal should be done before the first turkey is served. Like Kelly, anyone could hire Gruden at any time. Gruden would have to want to take the job, though.

In the far more likely event that Tennessee’s next coach is someone other than Gruden, the timeline shifts to when candidates would be available to talk. Mullen also would be an excellent choice for the Volunteers. Mike Norvell of Memphis likely will be leading the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game and wouldn’t be available to interview until after that game on Dec. 2. Washington State coach Mike Leach, who could be lured away by either the Vols or Gators, could be done Saturday or could be playing the following Friday in the Pac-12 title game if his Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Thursday

Ole Miss

The Rebels play Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl this week, but they could be dealing with news earlier in the week. They’re past the window in which the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions usually would hand down a ruling on a case, so the COI’s ruling could come any day. That ruling—and the ensuing sanctions—will determine which coaches are in the pool for the Ole Miss job. If the COI rules harshly and tacks on a longer postseason ban and serious scholarship reductions, that pool will shrink. If the COI hands down a lighter sentence, quite a few coaches will want the job—which could pay big money.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs escaped Arkansas, but they’ll deal with more noise all week. Mullen, who has interviewed for other jobs before, would be a good fit at Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M or Nebraska. But might he want to stay in Starkville? He has a very good team coming back next year. He has a new operations building. He has a job that gets him extended rather than fired if he wins nine games.

Friday

TCU

The Horned Frogs close their regular season Friday against rival Baylor, which would love nothing more than to ruin TCU’s Big 12 title chances. But a TCU win would clinch a spot opposite Oklahoma in the championship game. A Baylor win would complicate matters, and I’ll let Scott Bell of the Dallas Morning News take it from here because the league might be going deeeeeep into the tiebreaker list.

Arkansas

The firing of athletic director Jeff Long seems to spell doom for Bret Bielema’s tenure as the Arkansas coach. The question now is with this many jobs open, can the Razorbacks lure an attractive candidate? Of course a faction wants former Springdale (Ark.) High coach Gus Malzahn, but he might have a pretty good thing going at Auburn. Former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner put it well last week when I interviewed him on SiriusXM: The Razorbacks need an offensive identity that makes them different and gives them a recruiting niche. Triple option, Air Raid, it doesn’t matter which one. But Arkansas needs to be different in a good way.

UCF

The Knights will play USF at 3:30 p.m. ET Friday with a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game on the line. If UCF wins, it’ll be another huge step forward for a program that was 0–12 just two years ago. (And beating the nearby rival that spent years blocking UCF from the Big East would make it even sweeter.) It also means all those schools who want to interview Knights coach Scott Frost would have to wait another week. They can pass the time by reading my story on UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin.

USF

Remember before the season when we penciled the Bulls into the Group of Five’s spot in the New Year’s Six bowls? Well, they’ve only lost once (to Houston), but they’re 11-point underdogs to Interstate 4 rival UCF. Coach Charlie Strong’s team still has a shot at a big-money bowl, but it has to beat its rival.

Nebraska

It’s not really a secret that the Mike Riley era at Nebraska will end after the Iowa game. The question now is where the Cornhuskers go from here. Former Nebraska quarterback Frost seems like the obvious choice, but the UCF coach likely will have other suitors. If Frost chooses another job or stays at UCF, what then? Current Nebraska AD Bill Moos hired Leach at Washington State. That could be fun.

Saturday

The Game

Ohio State’s playoff hopes remain alive, but they’ll be dead if they can’t beat Michigan. Meanwhile, a loss to the Buckeyes would drop Jim Harbaugh’s record against his biggest rival to 0–3. Someone is going to be very, very angry when this one ends.

Iron Bowl

The last time an Alabama-Auburn matchup was a de facto SEC West title game, this happened.

With both teams still in the playoff hunt, this one could be just as much fun. Alabama is banged up at linebacker but might have Christian Miller back. Auburn looked like a juggernaut against Georgia on Nov. 11. The question now is whether the Tigers can repeat that performance, because they’ll need to be just as good to beat the Crimson Tide.

Territorial Cup

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez appears to have saved his job—thanks in large part to the rise of quarterback Khalil Tate. Arizona State coach Todd Graham may have saved his job—thanks in large part to a glut of openings and a limited supply of qualified replacements. Still, Graham probably should avoid a performance like last year, when the Wildcats ran for 511 yards, won 56–35 and didn’t even feel the need to attempt a pass in the second half.

Texas A&M

It appears the Texas A&M–Kevin Sumlin marriage will end soon, and that might be best for both parties. The Aggies want more, even though their history suggests this is what they should expect while sharing a division with a team on an all-time run. Sumlin deserves better than constant calls for his firing for multiple years. If Kelly picks Florida instead of UCLA, Westwood could be a nice landing spot for Sumlin. As for the Aggies, they should load up as much as their boosters are willing to chip in and make that run at Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. He might say no, but that’s not a foregone conclusion at this point.

A Random Ranking

I considered revisiting my Thanksgiving Side Dish Power Rankings from three years ago, but upon further review, they’re pretty much perfect. But since I will make multiple meals out of Thanksgiving leftovers, I’ve decided to rank the top five meals.

1. Breakfast
2. Second breakfast
3. Dinner
4. Lunch
5. Fourthmeal

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The winner of the Iron Bowl will face Georgia for the SEC title and for a playoff berth. This could be an all-timer.

2. Miami

The Hurricanes made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by falling behind by two touchdowns twice against Virginia. But they came back to keep their undefeated season alive. Mark Richt probably would prefer his team doesn’t make it so exciting against Pittsburgh.

3. Oklahoma

Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield made an otherwise ho-hum Saturday interesting by grabbing his junk on national television. He shouldn’t have done it, but it won’t keep him from winning the Heisman.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers need to beat Minnesota for the 14th consecutive season for several reasons. First, they’d stay undefeated and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Second, they’d win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Third, they’d win the Slab of Bacon trophy. No, really.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s about time we honored some Wisconsin offensive linemen, and this week’s award goes to Badgers center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel. Watch these two pull and eliminate defenders on Kendric Pryor’s 32-yard touchdown on an end-around against Michigan. I’m expecting a bunch of of-course-the-big-guys-blocked-the-small-guys responses from people who don’t understand the athleticism required for 316-pound redshirt freshman to snap, pull, locate a fast-moving target and then eliminate him from the play. These guys also have held their own against the big guys in the trenches all season, but it’s also fun to watch them perform a little Bulldozer Ballet.

Three and Out

1. A little Biblical rain in Knoxville wasn’t going to stop Coach O.

2. But a shank and a nifty decoy play would keep UCLA’s punt coverage team from finding USC’s Michael Pittman Jr.

3. Last week in this spot, you read about Austin Peay’s attempt to go from the nation’s longest losing streak to the FCS playoffs. The Governors did beat Eastern Illinois 28–13 to finish 8–1 in FCS play, but the selection committee—yes, they have those in other divisions—made Austin Peay the first team out of the 24-team bracket.

For Your Ears

First, an update on the Chip Kelly situation (which hopefully will still be correct when you hear it). Later, Nicole Auerbach of The All-American joins to discuss the coaching carousel, Grumors and the pixelated version of Mayfield’s crotch grab.

What’s Eating Andy?

Perhaps the most incongruous scene from Saturday was the Kansas football captains refusing to shake Mayfield’s hand—a precursor to the aforementioned Mayfield junk-grabbing—while two very young Kansas fans stood next to them. Instead of a trash-talking barrage, Mayfield could have checkmated the Jayhawks by shaking the hands of the two kids who accompanied them to midfield. It would have been hilarious, and it would have been the perfect response. Instead, everyone chose the stupidest possible option.

What’s Andy Eating?

The server considered the order I’d just given him and walked toward the kitchen. Then he wheeled around and returned to the table. “Do you still want the biscuit?” he asked.

For the uninitiated, the answer is always “Hell yes I want the biscuit.” I’d sat down at Mama’s Boy in Athens, Ga., and ordered two entrees. I had only planned to order the pulled pork and potato hash, but then I read the chalkboard next to the door. It said this:

Fig & Rosemary Pancakes: Fig and rosemary pancakes with fresh sliced figs and housemade fig syrup topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar

I had to try these. And since Mama’s Boy offered a short stack for $4.99, it would only be a taste. But when the food arrived, I understood my server’s hesitation vis-a-vis the biscuit that came on the side of the pulled pork and potato hash.

The “short stack” consisted of three glorious, fluffy pancakes covered with just enough of the aforementioned fig syrup. This would be a full meal for a normal person. I, however, am not normal. So I grabbed the bowl that contained the hash and plucked the biscuit off the side.

Mama’s Boy does everything right, which is why the line to get in snakes around the building many mornings. If you don’t want to wait, go at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday like I did and simply order breakfast for lunch. (You can call it brunch if you want. I’d rather not skip or combine meals.) That biscuit was golden on the outside and fluffy on the inside and soaked up the blackberry preserves I spread on each half. The pulled pork and potato hash was even better. Home fries provide the base for a pile of pulled pork that is lightly coated with mustard-based barbecue sauce. If you read this space often, you know my feelings on barbecue sauce. But while I don’t always use barbecue sauce, when I do, I prefer mustard-based. Two poached eggs sit atop this creation, and after a few swipes with a fork all the ingredients blend together into a comfort food amalgam that should come with a warning label. The Surgeon General has determined you’ll need a nap after this. Hope you have some free time.

The pancakes were just as good. My one complaint with typical pancakes is that even the salty buttermilk flavor doesn’t completely counterbalance the sweetness of the syrup. The rosemary cuts the sweetness just enough here. These lit up every section of taste buds, and even though I was stuffed after the hash, I couldn’t stop eating.

I wanted to try one of the cinnamon rolls the menu had touted, but I knew when I saw a tray of them in the kitchen that I’d need to wait for another day. They were approximately the size of youth footballs, but if they were made with the same care as everything else I’d tried, they had to be the most delicious footballs ever baked.

Week 13 Power Rankings: After a Quiet Week, the Iron Bowl Looms With Potential for Chaos

As the regular season winds down, we move from cupcake week to a feasting of good rivalry games that will not only settle conference and state bragging rights but also make the playoff picture a little clearer. This week we will focus on one game that could either create chaos or maintain the status quo in the SEC (until the next big game, which will happen the following week): the Iron Bowl.

The SEC West champion has won each of the last eight conference championships, and for Alabama and Auburn, this game could double as a playoff eliminator if the loser is forced to watch Championship Saturday from home and then falls on the wrong side of the committee’s cut line.

Many believe Alabama has just been going through the motions while beating lesser teams to a pulp. The two times they have been challenged in conference play, against Mississippi State and Texas A&M, they prevailed.

An Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl would thrust the Tigers into the thick of the playoff conversation, giving them two wins over No. 1 teams, something no other team in the hunt can even come close to touting when the playoff committee’s attention turns to strength of schedule.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (11–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mercer, 56–0
Next week: at Auburn

Not much needs to be said about the Mercer game, except that the Crimson Tide got plenty of rest for their starters in preparation for the Iron Bowl and Mercer got plenty of money for an expected and thorough beating.

2. Oklahoma (10–1, 7–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Beat Kansas, 41–3
Next week: vs. West Virginia

In Oklahoma’s 16th straight road victory, Heisman frontrunner (and crotch-grabbing repeat apologist) Baker Mayfield threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns, making easy work of the Jayhawks, whose one win this season apparently compelled them not to shake hands with Mayfield before the game. The Sooners, whose 469 yards of offense against Kansas were a season low, clinched their spot in the Big 12 title game.

3. Clemson (10–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat The Citadel, 61–3
Next week: at South Carolina

A glorified scrimmage took place in Clemson as the Tigers ripped apart a Citadel team that was clearly overmatched—in losing by 58 points, The Citadel pocketed a cool $300,000. The season finale against South Carolina looks like a tougher test than it did in the summer.

4. Wisconsin (11–0, 8–0 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Beat Michigan, 24–10
Next week: at Minnesota

Wisconsin continues to get it done, whether it looks impressive to skeptics or not. Jonathan Taylor had 132 yards and quarterback Alex Hornibrook was his usual steady self, throwing for 143 yards and one touchdown. The competitive portion of the game ended once Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters left with an injury, as backup John O'Korn was completely ineffective in breaking down the Badgers’ stout defense.

5. Miami, FL (10–0, 7–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Virginia, 44–28
Next week: at Pittsburgh

The turnover chain made three appearances in Miami’s victory, but the big one was Jaquan Johnson’s 30-yard interception return, part of a 30–0 Hurricanes run that erased a two-touchdown deficit. Malik Rosier tossed three touchdown passes and Travis Homer added 96 yards rushing for Miami, which ends the regular season on Friday against Pitt before the ACC title game on Dec. 2.

6. Auburn (9–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Louisiana-Monroe, 42–14
Next week: vs. Alabama

There is no need to hype how big next week’s game is against Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl. Auburn is two wins away from a conference title and a possible playoff berth. As far as this game, the Tigers overcame a slow start to dispatch the Warhawks. Kerryon Johnson ran for 137 yards and a touchdown, and Jarrett Stidham had 235 yards and two scores through the air.

7. Georgia (10–1, 7–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Kentucky, 42–13
Next week: at Georgia Tech

Georgia didn’t need much to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats have one of the nation’s worst pass defenses, but Georgia stuck to what it does best instead of getting freshman Jake Fromm comfortable in beating a team by throwing the ball. Georgia ran for 381 yards with five touchdowns, so as long as that formula works towards the goal of stacking victories, there will be no argument here.

8. Ohio State (9­–2, 7–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Beat Illinois, 52–14
Next week: at Michigan

The Buckeyes scored the first six times they had the football to clinch their spot in the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin. While the offense had its way with the Illini, the defense also did its part, limiting Illinois to five first downs and 105 yards of offense. A sixth straight win over Michigan would help keep those faint playoff hopes alive.

9. Notre Dame (9–2)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Beat Navy, 24–17
Next game: at Stanford

Commend Notre Dame for doing what it could in the mere 17 minutes it had the ball against Navy. Brandon Wimbush threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns and Josh Adams added 106 yards on the ground as the Fighting Irish bounced back from their brutal performance against Miami to stay in the hunt for a possible New Year’s Six bowl.

10. Central Florida (10–0, 7–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat Temple, 45–19
Next week: vs. South Florida

It doesn’t seem like UCF is distracted by all of the talk surrounding its head coach Scott Frost possibly being a candidate for several job openings around the nation. Quarterback McKenzie Milton had five total touchdowns with 208 passing yards, and the Knights’ defense forced five turnovers, quickly turning an early 10–7 deficit around by turning those miscues into 24 points.

11. USC (10–2, 8–1 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat UCLA, 28–23
Next week: Off; next game, Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 1.

UCLA’s Josh Rosen prevailed in the battle of the potential first-round NFL draft pick quarterbacks, throwing for 421 yards and three touchdowns, but Sam Darnold and the Trojans beat the Bruins for the third straight year. Darnold threw for 263 yards and also ran for a score. USC now enjoys its long-awaited bye week to rest up for either Washington State or Stanford in the conference championship game in two weeks.

12. Penn State (9–2, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking:12
Last week: Beat Nebraska, 56–44
Next week: at Maryland

Saquon Barkley broke out of a prolonged rushing slump with 158 yards rushing and three touchdowns and Trace McSorley threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns for the Nittany Lions, who were outscored 34–14 by Nebraska in the second half. In the process, Barkley broke the school’s career touchdown record with his 39th score.

13. TCU (9–2, 6-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Texas Tech, 27–3
Next game: vs. Baylor

All TCU needs to do next week is beat lowly Baylor to earn a rematch with Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, after cruising in Lubbock without starting quarterback Kenny Hill, who sat out with an injury. The usually potent Texas Tech offense did nothing all day and the Horned Frogs played it safe with true freshman quarterback Shawn Robinson, who threw it 17 times for only 85 yards but did have a touchdown throw.

14. Washington (9–2, 6–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 14
This week: Beat Utah, 33–30
Next week: vs. Washington State

Anyone that stayed up late to watch this one got a treat. Myles Gaskin had 52 yards and two touchdowns, the final one with 58 seconds remaining to tie the score, setting up Tristan Vizcaino’s game-winning 38-yard field goal at the buzzer. The Huskies now can only play Pac-12 spoiler for their in-state rival next week in the Apple Cup.

15. Memphis (9–1, 6–1 AAC)

Previous ranking:16
This week: Beat SMU, 66–45
Next week: vs. East Carolina

In a game that looked a lot like the defense-optional games native to the Big 12, the Tigers rolled up 664 yards of offense (331 passing, 333 rushing) to clinch the AAC West and now await the winner of Friday’s UCF-USF battle in the conference title game in two weeks. Riley Ferguson threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns for Memphis, which scored at least 10 points in every quarter.

16. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 18
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Washington

Washington State had the week off to prepare for the Apple Cup, which will give the Cougars a chance to exact revenge on their in-state rivals, wrap up the Pac-12 North and perhaps sneak into a New Year’s Six bowl.

17. Stanford (8–3, 7–2 Pac-12)

Previous ranking: 20
This week: Beat California, 17–14
Next week: vs. Notre Dame

Bryce Love ran for 101 yards on a bum ankle and Stanford kept its conference title hopes alive by beating Cal for the eighth straight time to set a record for consecutive wins in the series. Quarterback K.J. Costello went 17 for 26 for 185 yards and one touchdown in the victory, which made David Shaw the winningest coach in program history. The Cardinal will be watching the Apple Cup wearing purple and gold next week: A Washington victory sends them to the Pac-12 title game.

18. Virginia Tech (8–3, 4–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Beat Pittsburgh, 20–14
Next week: at Virginia

Pittsburgh had four opportunities to score from the one-yard line with less than a minute to go and failed, handing Virginia Tech another close win. Josh Jackson had 218 yards passing and two total touchdowns as the Hokies were again inconsistent on offense, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Jackson threw 20 incomplete passes and an interception but added 32 yards rushing to help Tech break a two-game losing streak.

19. Mississippi State (8–3, 4–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 24
This week: Beat Arkansas, 28–21
Next week: vs. Ole Miss

Nick Fitzgerald’s six-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds left lifted Mississippi State past struggling Arkansas. Fitzgerald had 153 yards and ran 22 times for 101 yards, his sixth game with 100-plus yards both passing and rushing. The Bulldogs were sloppy with the ball, fumbling four times and losing two. State bragging rights are on the line next week against Ole Miss, which has split the last four meetings with State.

20. LSU (8-3, 5–2 SEC)

Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Tennessee, 30–10
Next week: vs. Texas A&M

The weather in Knoxville was ugly—as was the special teams play—but it was LSU’s running game that made the difference. The Tigers ran for 200 yards on the backs of Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams and shut down Tennessee’s offense for their fifth win in six games. LSU has beaten Texas A&M six straight times heading into Saturday’s home finale.

21. Oklahoma State (8–3, 5–3 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Lost to Kansas State, 45–40
Next week: vs. Kansas

Oklahoma State decided that Saturday was the day not to show up until it was down by 25 points in the third quarter. Its defense let Kansas State wide receiver Byron Pringle run free through the secondary, and Pringle responded with three touchdown catches and kick return TD. The Cowboys squandered their opportunity as a potential playoff team this season by losing three games at home.

22. Michigan State (8–3, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Maryland, 17–7
Next week: at Rutgers

Michigan State completed two passes all game against Maryland, but no one will blame the Spartans for not trying to force the ball downfield in rain and a snowstorm. The Spartans did run for 271 yards—the first time in four games that the Spartans ran for more than 100 yards as a team—led by L.J. Scott, who rumbled for 147 on 29 carries. The finish the regular season at Rutgers, then can hope for an invite to one of the Big Ten’s more prominent bowls.

23. South Florida (9–1, 6–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 22
Last week: Beat Tulsa, 27–20
Next week: at Central Florida

The Bulls’ tune-up contest before their game of the year against UCF was not an exercise in fundamentally sound football. USF turned the ball over twice, wasn’t very efficient passing and needed a last-minute stop in the fourth quarter to beat a two-win Tulsa squad. Quinton Flowers had 261 total yards in his final home game and was helped out by a defense that had 13 tackles for loss.

24. Boise State (9–2, 7–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Air Force, 44–19
Next week: at Fresno State

Brett Rypien had 300 yards and three passing touchdowns to lead Boise State to its seventh straight win. The Broncos, who held Air Force’s triple option attack to 181 yards and forced three fumbles, will now play Fresno State two weeks in a row—first in their regular season finale and then the very next week in the Mountain West championship.

25. Northwestern (8–3, 6–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking:
This week: Beat Minnesota, 39–0
Next week: at Illinois

Northwestern’s longest winning streak in more than 20 years continues, thanks to a dominant effort by the defense. The Wildcats forced five turnovers, quarterback Clayton Thorson had three touchdown passes and Justin Jackson added 166 yards rushing. With a victory next week against Illinois, they can stake a claim that they deserve to be in a top-tier bowl.

Out: West Virginia, Michigan. Maybe next week: Florida Atlantic.

Week 12's Top 10: Elite Teams Flex Their Muscle on a Surprise-Free Saturday

A horrible slate of games in Week 12 provided little separation, as many of the top teams had no trouble with inferior competition. The week’s biggest winner was Wisconsin, which defeated Michigan to stay unbeaten. Things will get a whole lot more interesting next week, when all the big rivalry games go down. As for now, here’s an updated look at the nation’s 10 best teams:

1. Alabama: Mercer, as expected, was no match for the Crimson Tide, which got tuned up for the Iron Bowl at Auburn with a 56–0 romp. Alabama has now defeated 73 consecutive unranked teams under Saban, an FBS record. Two more wins and the Tide goes into the playoff as the No. 1 seed, but one stumble might—might—mean they get left out, since they only have two quality wins: at Mississippi State and at home against LSU.

2. Miami: The Hurricanes had to rally to beat a decent Virginia team, notching three more turnovers. Next up is Pitt. Miami is unbeaten with two good wins at home, having blown out Notre Dame and handled Virginia Tech. It’s a stretch to think they could lose to Clemson in the ACC title game and still make the final four without some help.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners held Kansas to 69 total yards in the first half and cruised to a 41–3 win. The Sooners have the best trio of wins of anyone in the country (Ohio State in Columbus, Oklahoma State in Stillwater and TCU in Norman), and there’s little shame in losing to 7–4 Iowa State.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers’ schedule stiffened, and they responded, holding off Michigan during a 24–10 win and limiting the Wolverines to 58 rushing yards—their Wolverines lowest output this season. Meanwhile Northwestern, the Big Ten West’s second-best team, has improved to 8–3.

5. Clemson: Saturday’s 61–3 win over FCS Citadel won’t turn heads, but the Tigers’ early-season performances against Auburn and Virginia Tech still stand on their own. Beat 8–3 South Carolina and then Miami in the ACC title game, and they’re all set. Stumble, and it’s doubtful they get a chance to defend their national title.

6. Georgia: After last weekend’s dismal performance at Auburn, the Bulldogs rebounded by drilling Kentucky, 42–13. Their win over Notre Dame carried them to the No. 1 ranking, but don’t overlook how they dispatched two eight-win teams in a 14-point win over South Carolina and a 31–3 thrashing of Mississippi State.

7. Auburn: That stunning loss at LSU has faded into the background with the roll Auburn is on right now, highlighted by last week’s domination of Georgia. If the Tigers beat Alabama this week and Georgia (again) the next, they’re in.

8. Notre Dame: Brian Kelly’s team bounced back from getting blasted at Miami by holding off a solid Navy team. Closing out the season by beating Stanford on the road would give the Irish an impressive 10–2 campaign to hold up, but an 11–2 Ohio State team that beat Michigan and then Wisconsin would leapfrog the Irish in the playoff pecking order.

9. Ohio State: As expected, the Buckeyes hammered Illinois. If they win out, especially if they do so in convincing fashion, I like their chances to make the playoff, although it would help to have Oklahoma stumble in the Big 12 title game.

10. UCF: The Knights keep blowing teams out and putting up points, beating Temple on the road 45–19. Their best win is over 9–1 Memphis, and that one wasn’t even close at 40–13. They’ll have a chance to impress more folks this Friday against a good USF team, but it’s still hard to envision them crashing the playoff.

Bowl Projections: Who Lands Where As the Postseason Picture Begins to Fall Into Place?

The effects of conference title games and marquee rivalry renewals around the country in the coming weeks will trickle down through the entire bowl calendar. Week 12’s action did not alter the playoff picture or the larger FBS landscape, but it did provide some critical victories for teams still working their way toward bowl eligibility. Below, the latest look at the projected (but far from official—only Army has locked in its postseason plans) matchups for all 39 bowl games leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship in Atlanta on Jan. 8. Because they take into account predicted results for the final weeks of the regular season, these projections won’t change when the new playoff rankings come out on Tuesday.

Saturday, Dec. 16

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans (1 p.m., ESPN)
Sun Belt vs. C-USA
Troy vs. Southern Mississippi

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (2:30 p.m., CBSSN)
AAC vs. Sun Belt
Tulane vs. Arkansas State

Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (3:30 p.m., ABC)
?MWC vs. Pac-12
Boise State vs. Oregon

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MWC
UTSA vs. Fresno State

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Montgomery, Ala. (8 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Akron vs. Georgia State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton, Fla. (7 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA
Temple vs. Florida International

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, Frisco, Texas (8 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA/MAC/MWC/BYU
Utah State vs. Middle Tennessee

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, St. Petersburg, Fla. (8 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. AAC
Marshall vs. South Florida

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, Nassau, Bahamas (12:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MAC
Florida Atlantic vs. Northern Illinois

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise (4 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. MWC
Western Michigan vs. Colorado State

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Birmingham, Ala. (12 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. SEC
Memphis vs. UAB

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Army vs. C-USA
Army vs. Western Kentucky

Dollar General Bowl, Mobile, Ala. (7 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Toledo vs. Appalachian State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Honolulu, (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. MWC
Houston vs. San Diego State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Big Ten
Cal vs. Ohio

Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Utah vs. Central Michigan

Cactus Bowl, Phoenix (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Kansas State vs. Arizona State

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Walk-On's Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Boston College vs. North Texas

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Virginia Tech vs. Indiana

Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m., FOX)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Iowa vs. Washington

Texas Bowl, Houston (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Texas vs. Texas A&M

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Md. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. AAC
Virginia vs. Navy

Camping World Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big 12
NC State vs. West Virginia

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Pac-12 vs. Big 12
USC vs. Oklahoma State

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, San Diego (9 p.m., FS1)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Michigan vs. Stanford

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. (1 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Wake Forest vs. Missouri

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (2 p.m., CBS)
ACC vs. Pac-12
Louisville vs. Arizona

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn. (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
Kentucky vs. Northwestern

Arizona Bowl, Tucson, Ariz. (5:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Sun Belt vs. MWC
Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Wyoming

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
LSU vs. Florida State

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn. (12:30 p.m., ABC)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Iowa State vs. SMU

Monday, Jan. 1, 2018

Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN2)
Big Ten vs. SEC
Michigan State vs. South Carolina

Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (1 p.m., ABC)
SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten
Mississippi State vs. Penn State

New Year's Six Bowls

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Arlington, Texas (Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Auburn vs. Notre Dame

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Washington State vs. TCU

Capital One Orange Bowl, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame
Clemson vs. Georgia

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta (Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-Large
UCF vs. Ohio State

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Pasadena, Calif. (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Oklahoma vs. Miami

Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Alabama vs. Wisconsin

College Football Playoff National Championship, Atlanta (Jan. 8, 8 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinal winner vs. CFP semifinal winner

Pressure Gauge: Georgia Must Rebound to Keep Playoff Hopes Alive

Going into Saturday’s game against unranked Kentucky, No. 7 Georgia has already clinched the SEC East and a berth to face Auburn or Alabama in the conference’s title game. But after losing to Auburn last week in grand fashion—the Tigers won 40-17—the Bulldogs’ playoff aspirations are on the ropes. Lose this week against Kentucky, and Kirby Smart’s team can count itself out. But win out—including in the SEC title game against a team that’s almost certain to be ranked in the top four at the time—and Georgia has as good a case as any team at being included among the ranks of the four playoff teams.

So why this week, you ask, is the pressure highest on Georgia? It’s won seven straight against Kentucky and is 56-12-2 against the Wildcats over time. But Mark Stoops’s team is 7-3 and poised to finish with its best record in a decade. Should it win out, including a bowl game, it’d reach a win total it hasn’t seen since 1977. The Wildcats are no automatic win for Georgia—plus, the Bulldogs haven’t had more on the line this season than they do this week. Sure, a sloppy loss to an inferior team might have shaken up their playoff bid earlier in the year, but that didn’t happen, and we’ve now reached the point where a two-loss Georgia team is almost certainly out of the hunt.

The game against Kentucky will pit the No. 10 rushing attack in the country—Georgia’s top two backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, have combined for 19 touchdowns on 1,625 yards this season—against the No. 19 rushing defense. Kentucky has allowed opponents just 121.9 yards of rushing per game this year; meanwhile Georgia is averaging 256. Something will have to give, and it’ll likely be Kentucky. Of the Wildcats’ opponents thus far in 2017, Mississippi State and Missouri are the only two with top-40 rushing offenses, and they rushed for 282 and 213 yards, respectively against Kentucky. The Bulldogs won handily and the Tigers lost by a touchdown.

If Chubb and Michel can play like they have all season, Georgia should be golden. Kentucky’s pass defense has been downright abysmal all season, allowing opponents an average of more than 280 yards per game, meaning that QB Jake Fromm (who’s been more than just a game manager even as a true freshman backup forced into a starting role) might be able to let loose on the Wildcats as well. The Georgia defense has been inconsistent at times this season, shutting out Tennesee and holding Mississippi State to three points while also allowing Missouri 28 points and Auburn 40, but Kentucky’s offense hasn’t been prodigious, and as long as the Bulldogs don’t put up another defensive performance like last week’s, they should be just fine.

Still, it’s impossible to predict how a team coming off its first loss and facing the most pressure it’s faced all year will perform. Playing at home will help—the Auburn loss came on the road—as will the clarity of the stakes. Lose, and this is a good season. Win, and Georgia has a chance for something great. It gets Georgia Tech next week in the teams’ annual rivalry game, which won’t be a cakewalk but seems manageable at the end of an inconsistent season for the Yellowjackets. And from there, it’ll either get an Alabama team that’ll almost certainly be ranked No. 1 or Auburn and a chance at redemption. Winning either of those matchups would almost certainly elevate Georgia back into the top four and guarantee the Bulldogs’ best season since it won the Sugar Bowl in 2002.

Manny Diaz's Resurrection of Miami's Defense Isn't All About the Turnover Chain

Like all good coaches, Manny Diaz knew the power of a history lesson. Diaz arrived at Miami in 2016 as the defensive coordinator on Mark Richt’s new staff after a solid season in the rough-and-tumble SEC at Mississippi State, but this was a unique job for him. Diaz grew up in South Florida as a huge Hurricanes fan. He spent many Saturdays of his youth in a raucous Orange Bowl, especially in the ’80s, when Miami was the dominant program in college football. Diaz was in the stands when the Canes took down No. 1 Oklahoma. He was there for the famed “third-and-43” game in 1989, when the Canes crushed No. 1 Notre Dame, 27–10.

Diaz’s primary point of emphasis with his new charges was getting them to “play like Hurricanes.”

“What that means," Diaz says, "is playing fast, being very physical, playing violent on the field, because that really was the identity of that program back in the day, and that’s really what you saw whenever they played [and dominated] in matchups vs. physical, power-running teams like Notre Dame."

Miami looked eerily similar to the teams of three decades ago in last weekend’s 41–8 mauling of No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish came in riding one of the nation’s top ground attacks, averaging over seven yards per carry; Miami held them to just three yards per carry and forced four turnovers, becoming the first FBS team to notch at least four takeaways in four straight games against FBS opponents in at least 13 years—a feat that’s even more impressive when you consider Miami only starts one senior on defense, has 10 freshmen and sophomores on its defensive two-deep and is playing with just 73 scholarship players.

Diaz says that aggressive, suffocating defense is practically in the DNA of South Florida football, tying into the way the game is taught right down to the earliest levels of the area's storied Optimist Football programs. “Even when you watch the little league football down here, it’s coached tough,” Diaz says. “It’s hard to score points. UM should be an extension of that.”

Of course, talking about playing great, physical football is one thing. Making it happen is another. After all, Miami’s defense ranked 86th in yards per play allowed, the year before Mark Richt and Diaz showed up. [The Canes rank 12th in that category this year and were ninth last season.]

Building a team defined by its toughness was non-negotiable for the new Miami staff, Diaz says. And he demanded they become a better tackling team. As a big proponent of the rugby tackling system Pete Carroll employs with the Seahawks, Diaz knew it’s all about leverage and trusting your teammates.

To help put some teeth back in the Canes’ defense, Diaz created new ways to measure their performance. Players were awarded “a bite” for any sign of physical domination, such as making the opponent go backwards against his will—these players could get their names called out and receive a helmet sticker. On the flip side, they would get “a poodle” if they ran away from contact or were doing something that was not “setting the standard.” The punishment for that was having to push a 45-pound plate across the field.

The most well-known incentive that Diaz has brought to Miami is its now-famous turnover chain, the 5 1/2–pound Cuban link of 10-karat gold that has become a college football phenomenon. “We didn’t know how it was gonna work,” he says. Turns out, it’s been like a turnover magnet.

Turnovers themselves are hard to forecast. Last year Boise State ranked No. 126 in turnovers gained; this year the Broncos are up almost 100 spots to No. 29. And every team has turnover stations and ball-security drills at practice. Diaz says he believes that turnovers happen if you stop the run and force the other team to have to throw the ball. Interceptions and strip sacks come into play when an offense feels like it must takes some chances. He also suspects the turnover chain may have some pyschological impact on both teams, especially after Miami gets its first takeaway. “It sort of puts blood in the water, and maybe it’s planting a seed in the other team’s minds,” he says, pointing out that both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame are excellent ball-security teams, with each suffering nearly half of its season-long turnover total against the Hurricanes.

Credit Richt, a former Miami backup QB, for bringing back the connections to the Canes’ glory days. That bond has no doubt also helpe spark the resurgence. Many of the program’s old stars have come back for summer recruiting camps and are enjoying seeing Miami back in the national spotlight.

“Dan Morgan texted me [right after the Notre Dame game], and that made my day,” says sophomore linebacker Mike Pinckney. “He texted me and said, ‘I love the way you guys are playing as a defense,’ and that kind of brought a tear to my heart. That’s someone I always looked up to when I was younger. That just made my day. D.J. Williams, [Jon] Beason, [Jon] Vilma, they text us all and as a younger guy that makes us feel special.”

It also makes some older guys on the Canes staff feel pretty special, too.

Other Notes

• Coming off a dominant showing in knocking off No. 1 Georgia, folks are raving about Auburn’s defense (rightly so) and star running back Kerryon Johnson has shot into the Heisman race (rightly so), but the Tigers have also gotten a jolt from one of the better under-the-radar stories in college football this season. Center Casey Dunn was named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against the mighty UGA defense. Dunn graded out 91 percent for the game and had a season-high six blocks that led to first downs or touchdowns for Auburn. In addition, he helped pave the way for the Tigers to roll up 488 total yards, including 237 rushing yards—the most for any team against Georgia in two years.

Not bad who a guy who began his college career as an FCS walk-on player.

Dunn, a grad transfer, is listed at 6' 4" and 292 pounds—those inside the program say he’s probably more like 6' 2"—but his toughness is off the charts, he has good feet and he’s extremely smart. At Jacksonville State, he earned All-America honors, anchoring the unit that sparked the top offense in the Ohio Valley Conference and propelled the Gamecocks to the FCS title game in 2015.

How did a guy who clearly has SEC talent end up as an FCS walk-on? Dunn played at a very good program in Alabama, Hewitt-Trussville High, and had the grades. His high school coach Hal Riddle said Dunn went down with a knee injury midway through his junior season that required surgery.

“When all the college coaches are rolling through and coming by practice, he’s standing over there helping coach with a big old brace on his leg,” Riddle says. "He didn’t get clearance until August, so he couldn’t attend football camps that most kids would, so he was flying under the radar.”

Riddle had coached several other SEC linemen and says Dunn was as good as any of them, but he just got caught up by some bad timing and the numbers game. “So many coaches today will get into this ‘If you want us to be interested in you, you need to be at our camp.’ ” Riddle says. “But he wasn’t cleared for that and then all the big schools have this template that they’re looking for, where you need to be this tall and weigh this much and run this speed. Casey’s got all the intangibles. He’s an incredible young man. Just by his presence he makes your team better. So humble and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the team. He’s the one who’s always lifting kids up.

“I never once heard him say [while getting passed over in the recruiting process] ‘I don’t know why?’ or act like poor, pitiful me. And then Casey enjoyed every minute he was up there at Jacksonville. I’m so happy for him to see how things have turned out.”

• Defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is quietly having another record-setting season. Last weekend he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. This year Jackson has thrown for 3,003 yards and rushed for 1,176. Yet he’s pretty far off the Heisman radar right now. Why? It’s a question I’ve gotten a few times this week.

For starters, Louisville has had a pretty underwhelming season, at 6–4 with two games to go. Any early momentum the Cardinals had was torpedoed by a blowout home loss to Clemson in Week 3, which was followed by three losses in October. Three of Louisville’s four losses have been by double-digits, and its lone win over an FBS team with a winning record just came last week against 6–4 Virginia. On top of that, Jackson wasn’t great in his two games against ranked opponents, rushing for 69 yards a game on just 3.8 yards per carry—about half of what he’s done in the other eight games. His QB rating in those two games is 30 points lower than it has been against non–Top 25 teams.

• Name of the Week: Bull Barge. The 5' 10", 225-pound South Alabama linebacker had a career-high 13 tackles against Arkansas State in a 24–19 win last Saturday. His full name is De’Themeyus Terrill Barge.

• Stat of the Week: Notre Dame has played two huge games in Miami in the past five years: one agianst Alabama for the national championship at the end of the 2012 season and the other last Saturday against Miami, a playoff elimination game of sorts. The Irish were outscored by a combined 55–0 in the first halves of those games. Mercy.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

Grappling With Goliaths: Inside the Locker Rooms of the FCS Teams Paid to Take a Pounding

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. ... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”

—I Samuel 17:4–8

At 6:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.

Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.

The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU’s 12-hour ride to Little Rock: “All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000.” He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called “money games.” First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas’s deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would’ve cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, “This is not a situation where we’re pocketing this money. We’re not running out buying cars with it.”

Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to ’95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) “A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million,” Overton explained. “This level is more akin to pure amateurism.” The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton’s eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes’ scholarships. “This game will cover about a fourth of that,” he says proudly. “When you’re in a Power 5 conference you don’t think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It’s a given. It’s not a given here.”

FAMU’s game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3’s tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who’s been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. “They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects.” There aren’t any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a “money game” to show scouts.

Jerry cited FAMU’s trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69–13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that’s not what got Harvey invited to the Titans’ training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. “It was that Oklahoma game,” Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. “All these guys want is a shot.”

FAMU’s top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6' 1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation’s 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn’t understand the question but because he was preoccupied. “I just know there's a football game and I’m playing in it,” he said.

Loubens Polinice, a 6' 3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas’s starters, said, “Being the underdog is fun to me.” Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, “I don’t think we’re being exploited at all.”

The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players’ sleeping faces. “We’ll fly to three conference games this year,” said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, “two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible.”

“These buses cost us about $20,000,” Overton clarified. “Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That’s a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game.”

On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).

The list included FAMU’s win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches’ faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won’t have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU’s coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year’s 70–3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like “If what people expect to happen, happens ...” and “If we can keep the game close...” and a mischievous “You never know.”

That afternoon, as Arkansas’s players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU’s season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90° heat, waiting to use the men’s room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.

When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he’d been sharing with his team all week: “Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop.”

On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long (who would be let go two months later) sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. “I played Division III football,” said Long. “I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, ‘I went up against that guy, and I got him.’ I get chills just thinking about it, because I’ve been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me.” In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was “to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play.”

Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. “That’s on me,” said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, “but that’s what happens when you have one equipment manager.”

Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU’s celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers’ offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7–0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21–0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.

In the locker room, shouts of, “We got them boys shook!” echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers’ size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6' 6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, “F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They’re gonna try to take our heart!”

On FAMU’s third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28–zip, Hogs.

It was 42–0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers’ seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.

With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.

The visitors’ sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood’s muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?

Well worth the drive.

Liberty is a private, “Christian research university” with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don’t schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty’s late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame’s does for Catholics and Brigham Young’s does for Mormons.

The university’s Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that’s his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson’s. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6' 4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.

Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.

Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.

If one thing became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football’s Valley of Elah, it’s that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor’s secondary in the first quarter. “They didn’t seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger.”

In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34–31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. “Are you surprised by this?” he was asked.

“No, I’m not,” Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. “We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level.”

When Baylor’s Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. “We’ve been dreaming of this moment for eight months,” one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. “To God be the glory.”

On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51–7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55–19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112–0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43–40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.

In Macon, Ga., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer’s $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn’s stadium with a shot of Mercer’s, capacity: 10,200.

“What do these places have in common?” Kolakowski asked his players.

“The field,” said senior end Isaiah Buehler.

“That’s right.” Click. “It’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that’s not on the field is what?”

Silence.

“It’s clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter.” Kolakowski pointed at Auburn’s massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. “None of this stuff matters.”

Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer’s field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life,” freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty’s win, and Howard’s, too. “Anything’s possible,” he said.

The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he’d worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. “We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect,” Tate said, “to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment.” Coach Bobby Lamb’s summary of those findings was unscientific: “Applications went through the roof,” Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. “We didn’t have enough people to handle ’em all.”

Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, “We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we’re not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us.”

But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. “Yes, that has crossed my mind,” said Lamb. “In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you’re playing against.”

All was quiet in Mercer’s locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players’ surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41 1/2 points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?

“We gotta eliminate what?” Kolakowski asked his defense.

“Clutter,” they replied.

“That’s right. And what’s clutter?”

The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.

“Lemme see everybody’s eyes right now,” Lamb said. “We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters. ... Here’s all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let’s go!”

The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.

Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you’d still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer’s players. On Auburn’s first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.

“What’d I tell ya?” Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10–3 at half. “We’re outplayin’ ’em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin’ crap out of ’em. We’re runnin’ inside zone just like we want to, we’re double teamin’ them two big ol’ fat asses outta there. We’re right where we need to be! ... The field’s 100 yards! The ball’s oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!”

Auburn’s coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren’t going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer’s defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers’ 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17–3 lead. “In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor,” Lamb said afterward.

With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, “We need all you got, Kam!”—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler’s in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.

Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. “We’ve got a game,” Joel Meyers told SEC Network’s viewers. “Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama.”

A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn’s All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17–10. “Guys, I told y’all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS.” The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, “the s--- was happening.”

Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer’s “poorest series of the night”—as Lamb would describe it later—“and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return.”

Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24–10 win. “Boy, y’all have got a good program,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn’t merely talking about talent.

On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of ’90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.

As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 (“Keep your music to yourself”) had been violated, but he couldn’t bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he’d witnessed that afternoon.

“No big deal,” he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.

The ACC Eyes Dream Scenario and Oklahoma Looking at Nightmare After Latest Playoff Rankings

After a weekend filled with losses for top-ranked teams, this week's College Football Playoff rankings have plenty of changes.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is seeing Clemson moving up from No. 4 to No. 2 and Miami sliding in at No. 3. Although, we probably shouldn't be all that surprised. The Tigers had been sitting at the four spot in each of the first two rankings before Tuesday and Miami's emphatic win over Notre Dame had us thinking the Canes would find themselves at two. Instead of falling for that recency bias, however, the selection committee valued Clemson's top-25 wins vs. Auburn and NC State over Miami's lone top-25 win vs. the Irish.

With that out of the way, let's figure out what these new rankings mean as we approach the final few weeks of the regular season.

HOW ABOUT MIAMI AND CLEMSON IN THE PLAYOFF?

Two weeks ago we were discussing Alabama and Georgia meeting in both the SEC title and national title games. We were also discussing how the other Power 5 conferences were going to complain about two SEC schools making the playoff. Whether it's Auburn continuing to tear everything apart, Georgia recovering in time to win the conference, or Alabama winning out, that's probably not going to happen.

Instead, the ACC could get two teams in the final four. Clemson and Miami will meet in the conference title game. Let's say 11-1 Clemson beats 12-0 Miami in a close, thrilling game giving both teams one loss on the season. If most of the favorites around the country win out and the ACC Championship Game ends like we've laid out above, the ACC will have a genuine case to make for taking up half the playoff spots.

OKLAHOMA AND THE BIG 12 MAY GET HOSED

Sitting at No. 4 is NEVER a good thing. It's why we were looking at Clemson and thinking it may tumble prior to the ACC title game. Now the Sooners, despite just joining the top four, could end up in such a scenario.

As you've just read, two ACC teams in the playoff isn't an outlandish idea. Assuming the SEC champ gets a third playoff spot—and it will—the final slot would be a fight between the Big 12 and Big Ten champions. If it comes down to this, Oklahoma must root for Ohio State to take down Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. OU already beat the Buckeyes in Columbus earlier this season. If the Badgers win out, there's simply no way the committee would leave out a 13-0 power conference champion.

The part of college football where you have to root for your opponents never gets old.

Here are the third full College Football Playoff rankings of the 2017 season:

1. Alabama (10-0, SEC)
2. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
3. Miami (9-0, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (9-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (8-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (9-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (8-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (8-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (8-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (9-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (8-2, Big 12)
13. Oklahoma State (8-2, Big 12)
14. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)
15. UCF (9-0, AAC)
16. Mississippi State (7-3, SEC)
17. Michigan State (7-3, Big Ten)
18. Washington (8-2, Pac 12)
19. NC State (7-3, ACC)
20. LSU (7-3, SEC)
21. Memphis (8-1, AAC)
22. Stanford (7-3, Pac 12)
23. Northwestern (7-3, Big Ten)
24. Michigan (8-2, Big Ten)
25. Boise State (8-2, MWC)

Alabama Tops This Week's College Football Playoff Ranking

After an eventful weekend that saw several top-ten teams lose, there's been a major shakeup at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings.

A familiar face tops this week's ranking, as the Alabama Crimson Tide claim the top spot with a 10-0 record. No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Miami, No. 4 Oklahoma join Alabama in position for the four-team playoff.

The first two teams out are No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Auburn.

Alabama came back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to eek out a 31-24 road win at Mississippi State.? The Crimson Tide have been No. 1 in both the AP and USA TODAY Coaches' poll since the preseason, but the committee rewarded Georgia with the No. 1 spot for the first two weeks, as the Bulldogs had more impressive wins.

Last week's top-ranked team Georgia fell six spots to No. 7 after a 40-17 loss to Auburn. If Georgia wins out, the Bulldogs will likely play the winner of the Auburn-Alabama game in the SEC championship game, the winner of which will be in great position to earn a Playoff berth.

Miami moved up five spots after its impressive 41–8 win over Notre Dame in primetime. The turnover chain-wearing defense kept its magic going by forcing four turnovers, and Miami's game against No. 3 Clemson on Dec. 2 could go a long way in finalizing the playoff picture. Notre Dame, on the other hand, had its Playoff hopes crushed and tumbled to No.8.

In a matchup of last week's No. 5 and No. 6 teams, Baker Mayfield cemented his status as the Heisman front-runner by throwing for 333 yards and three touchdowns as Oklahoma beat TCU 38–20.

Wisconsin moved up after comfortably beating then-No. 20 Iowa. The win clinched the Big Ten West title for the Badgers, meaning they'll get the chance to post another much-needed impressive victory in the Big Ten championship game.

The Pac-12's Playoff hopes were all but ended with Washington's loss at Stanford on Friday night.

No. 15 Central Florida of the AAC is in pole position to earn the group-of-five conferences' bid in a New Years Six bowl.

The full ranking is as follows:

1. Alabama (10-0, SEC)
2. Clemson (9-1, ACC)
3. Miami (9-0, ACC)
4. Oklahoma (9-1, Big 12)
5. Wisconsin (9-0, Big Ten)
6. Auburn (8-2, SEC)
7. Georgia (9-1, SEC)
8. Notre Dame (8-2, Independent)
9. Ohio State (8-2, Big Ten)
10. Penn State (8-2, Big Ten)
11. USC (9-2, Pac 12)
12. TCU (8-2, Big 12)
13. Oklahoma State (8-2, Big 12)
14. Washington State (9-2, Pac 12)
15. UCF (9-0, AAC)
16. Mississippi State (7-3, SEC)
17. Michigan State (7-3, Big Ten)
18. Washington (8-2, Pac 12)
19. NC State (7-3, ACC)
20. LSU (7-3, SEC)
21. Memphis (8-1, AAC)
22. Stanford (7-3, Pac 12)
23. Northwestern (7-3, Big Ten)
24. Michigan (8-2, Big Ten)
25. Boise State (8-1,

Playoff Rankings Preview: Get Ready to Talk About Ohio State Again

Well, that was quite the weekend.

No. 1 Georgia endured a beatdown at the hands of No. 10 Auburn. No. 2 Alabama barely escaped with a road win at Mississippi State. No. 3 Notre Dame was obliterated by No. 7 Miami's turnover chain–sporting defense. No. 6 TCU fell to No. 5 Oklahoma. And No. 9 Washington lost to Stanford late on Friday night, effectively eliminating the Pac-12 from the playoff.

All that means the season’s third edition of the playoff rankings will look quite different. Here's our best guess:

1. Alabama, which has felt like No. 1 all year to everyone but the playoff committee.
2. Miami, still undefeated and fresh off a dismantling of Notre Dame emphatic enough to delay the Oklahoma vs. Miami debate for now.
3. Oklahoma, which slides in front of Clemson on the strength of its quality wins.
4. Clemson, still chilling in the playoff field but hanging on by a thread.
5. Wisconsin, which is in line to make a natural jump after what happened in front of it but is still being kept out of the top four by that meh schedule.
6. Auburn, here despite its two losses because it beat No. 1 and made it look easy.
7. Georgia, the nation’s second-best one-loss team that falls farther because its loss came to a team Clemson beat.
8. Notre Dame, which lays claim to the highest-quality losses of the remaining two-loss bunch.
9. TCU, which can’t be pleased its Iowa State loss is not holding up better.
10. Ohio State, despite an infinitely baffling loss to Iowa.

Now let’s dive into what those rankings, or an outcome close to them, would mean.

Ohio State is very much in the conversation

How, you may ask, can the Buckeyes make it back into the top four after their most recent loss was such an embarrassment? The answer: Scheduling.

As bad as that 55–24 meltdown at Kinnick Stadium was, Ohio State’s first loss of the season at the hands of Oklahoma looks more than reasonable. Then you add in quality wins over Penn State and Michigan State and another potential quality win in the regular season finale against Michigan, and the Buckeyes could find themselves with the No. 4 seed when the season ends if they get past a 12–0 Wisconsin team in a Big Ten title game. (Advanced stats give the Badgers a greater than 50% probability of finishing the regular season undefeated.) Meanwhile, a minimum of three other teams above them in this hypothetical top 10 are guaranteed to lose at least one more time before Selection Sunday.

Things are lining up well for Auburn

We had previously presented the absurd scenario of Auburn winning out to improbably reach the playoff as more of a fun thought experiment than anything else. Then the Tigers ran Georgia out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 40–17 whooping. Beating the Bulldogs was only Step One of an improbable path to the playoff. Auburn won so convincingly, however, that a similar win over Georgia in the SEC title game after taking down an injury-riddled Alabama in the Iron Bowl doesn't sound all that crazy anymore.

Notre Dame is done

The Irish making the playoff would have meant at least two Power 5 conferences would have been left out. That scenario is now gone. There will be a bunch of two-loss teams at the end of the season, and there’s no way the committee would choose a 10–2 Notre Dame over an 11–2 Power 5 conference champion.

Week 12 Power Rankings: Auburn Isn't Playing Like a Two-Loss Team

It’s getting increasingly likely that one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff field will finish with two losses for the first time in the format’s history, and the strongest candidate to make that history is the one that just dominated the No. 1 team in the nation.

Fresh off a 40–17 win over Georgia, Auburn in the best position to crash the playoffs based on who the Tigers have beaten (their blowout win over Mississippi State is looking better with time) and who they still have to play. Just imagine where they would be if they hadn’t spoiled a 20–0 lead over LSU, or if they had found a way to contain Clemson’s loaded defensive line in a September non-conference test.

If the Tigers beat Alabama on Nov. 25 and beat Georgia again in the SEC Championship, they’d have the country’s most impressive set of wins in the last month of the season. Make no mistake about it; this is a complete team, equipped with a quarterback who can stretch the field, a running back capable of 30-plus carries and an opportunistic defense capable of shutting down any SEC offense.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (10–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mississippi State, 31–24
Next week: vs. Mercer

Alabama was finally challenged this season, but it remains to be seen how this performance will look in two weeks when the SEC West crown will be decided against Auburn. In beating Mississippi State for the 10th straight time, the Crimson Tide should vault to No. 1 when the College Football Playoff rankings come out this week.

2. Oklahoma (9–1, 6–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat TCU, 38–20
Next week: at Kansas

TCU was supposed to be the one Big 12 team that played defense, but it was not equal to the task of slowing the nation’s best offense. Baker Mayfield threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns, cementing his Heisman frontrunner status as Oklahoma gained 533 yards to take sole possession of first place in the conference. The Sooners’ rushing attack was led by Rodney Anderson’s 151 yards and two touchdowns.

3. Clemson (9–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Florida State, 31–14
Next week: vs. The Citadel

The ACC title game is set, and Clemson will take on Miami with a playoff spot likely on the line. Kelly Bryant completed 20 of his 30 passes, but those completions went for only 151 yards against a talented Seminoles defense. The Tigers get a chance to tune up their offense next week against an FCS opponent.

4. Miami (9–0, 6–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Notre Dame, 41–8
Next week: vs. Virginia

The turnover chain seemed to get more screen time than ever on Saturday night thanks to an onslaught of miscues by Notre Dame that led directly to 24 Miami points. The Hurricanes secured their place in the ACC title game, but they still have trap games against a decent Virginia squad and a late-November road trip to Pittsburgh before they see Clemson in Charlotte.

5. Wisconsin (10–0, 7–0 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Iowa, 38-14
Next week: vs. Michigan

Wisconsin moved to 10–0, wrapped up the unspectacular Big Ten West and continued to get little national respect. The Badgers’ defense has beat up on its divisional competition all season, with Iowa the latest victim. The Hawkeyes had only four first downs and 66 yards of offense. Running back Jonathan Taylor has all but claimed Freshman of the Year honors, rumbling for another 157 yards on 29 carries.

6. Auburn (8–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat Georgia, 40–17
Next week: vs. Louisiana–Monroe

The Tigers took apart a Georgia defense that was among the best in the country and did so with relative ease. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham had three touchdown passes, and Kerryon Johnson had 167 yards rushing and a touchdown on a 55-yard fourth-quarter screen pass that sealed the statement win.

7. Georgia (9–1, 6–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Lost to Auburn, 40–17
Next week: vs. Kentucky

The narrative of Georgia as a one-dimensional team on offense came to fruition as freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was unable to compensate when Auburn’s front seven shut down the running game. Georgia ends the season with Kentucky and Georgia Tech before the SEC title game.

8. Notre Dame (8–2)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Lost to Miami, 41–8
Next game: vs. Navy

The question the Irish needed to be answered before Saturday's game was whether they could do enough with Brandon Wimbush in the passing game to balance the running attack. The answer turned out to be an emphatic no, as the Hurricanes harrassed Wimbush all night to end any playoff hopes in South Bend. Turning the ball over four times didn’t help either.

9. Ohio State (8­-2, 6–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 12
This week: Beat Michigan State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Illinois

It’s baffling how Ohio State can look like the biggest fraud in college football one week and one of the nation’s best teams the next. In a rout of Michigan State, the Buckeyes set the stage to win their division if they can take their next two games. Ohio State’s defense showed up in a big way, holding Michigan State to 195 yards of offense, racking up six sacks and forcing three turnovers.

10. UCF (9–0, 6–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat UConn, 49–24
Next week: at Temple

The Knights don’t have many flaws, but the ones they do have don’t bode well for when the schedule gets touger in the final weeks. Quarterback McKenzie Milton continued his steady play with 311 yards passing, but the defense did let UConn have success on the ground. UCF is also one of the most penalized teams in the nation and added 10 more to its count on Saturday.

11. USC (9–2, 7–1 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Colorado, 38–24
Next week: vs. UCLA

Sam Darnold threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns as USC jumped out to a 27–0 lead in Boulder en route to clinching the Pac–12 South title. While the victory wasn’t anything special, the Trojans have now won three in a row since a blowout loss to Notre Dame and are trending in the right direction, even though a playoff berth seems like a long shot at this point.

12. Penn State (8–2, 5–2 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 14
Last week: Beat Rutgers, 35­–6
Next week: vs. Nebraska

In the last three weeks, Penn State went from being ranked No. 2 in two polls and having the player many saw as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner to 8–2 and on the outside looking in on the major bowls. Saquon Barkley had 35 yards on the ground against Rutgers, his third straight game with less than 100 yards rushing.

13. TCU (8–2, 5-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Lost to Oklahoma, 38–20
Next game: at Texas Tech

All is not lost for the Horned Frogs, who still go to the Big 12 title game if they win out. Their vaunted defense simply could not slow Oklahoma down in the first half, and by the time they did, the game was completely out of reach. TCU gave up 13 plays of 10 or more yards in the first half alone.

14. Washington (8–2, 5–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Lost to Stanford, 30–22
Next week: vs. Utah

Washington shouldn't have to worry about the East Coast viewership of its late-night games anymore now that the playoff is out of the question. Jake Browning threw for 190 yards and Myles Gaskin ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns, but the Huskies’ inability to sustain drives did them in.

15. Oklahoma State (8–2, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Beat Iowa State, 49–42
Next week: vs. Kansas State

Oklahoma State rallied twice–once early and once late–to keep its conference title game hopes alive, beating Iowa State for the sixth year in a row. Mason Rudolph had 376 yards passing and three touchdowns, including two in the final six minutes, as the Cowboys used a last–minute interception to thwart the upset attempt. The Cowboys’ defense looked like it still hadn’t recovered from Bedlam, giving up 30 first downs and 491 yards to Iowa State.

16. Memphis (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Off
Next week: vs. SMU

Memphis will wrap up the AAC West and a spot in the conference title game with a victory over SMU, which has lost three straight to the Tigers. While their offense is explosive, their lack of discipline could hold them back: The Tigers are averaging more than eight penalties per game.

17. Virginia Tech (7–3, 3–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Lost to Georgia Tech, 28–22
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh

Georgia Tech completed two passes the entire game against Virginia Tech, but those two completions went 60 and 80 yards for touchdowns, the last providing the game-winning score. The Hokies had trouble moving the ball for the second consecutive week, averaging a miserable 2.9 yards per carry.

18. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 20
Last week: Beat Utah, 33–25
Next week: Off; next game Nov. 25 vs. Washington

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the Pac-12 record for career touchdown passes. Utah did all it could to help out the Cougars by turning the ball over seven times, and coordinator Alex Grinch’s much-improved defense also had seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Washington State is just one victory from playing in the Pac-12 title game, but Washington has won four straight Apple Cups.

19. Michigan (8–2, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 21
This week: Beat Maryland, 35–10
Next week: at Wisconsin

Michigan has not been in the national conversation for a while, but that all could change in Week 12 when the Wolverines try to beat Wisconsin and officially cast the Big Ten to the fringe of the playoff picture. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Peters has performed admirably since taking over as starter, with two touchdown passes against Maryland.

20. Stanford (7–3, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 22
This week: Beat Washington, 30–22
Next week: vs. California

Stanford got right back in the Pac-12 North race thanks to Bryce Love, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns. Love also got some help from quarterback K.J. Costello’s 211 passing yards, with key completions that helped control the clock and keep Washington’s offense off the field. The Cardinal will represent the Pac-12 North in the conference title game if Washington State loses to Washington.

21. West Virginia (7–3, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Kansas State, 28–23
Next week: vs. Texas

The combination of Will Grier and David Sills V worked once again as the duo combined for two scores in West Virginia’s victory over Kansas State. Grier finished with 372 yards and four touchdowns and now is second in the NCAA with 34 touchdown passes, 17 of which have gone to Sills. Kansas State has four losses this season by a touchdown or less and is in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time in eight years.

22. South Florida (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 24
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Tulsa

South Florida will need to win out to have a chance of securing the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid, starting with a tune-up opportunity against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are absolutely terrible on defense, ranking in the bottom third of the NCAA in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing efficiency defense. You get the point.

23. Michigan State (7–3, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 16
Last week: Lost to Ohio State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Maryland

Michigan State learned the hard way of expecting Ohio State to turn in two sloppy performances in a row. This time, it was the Spartans who looked like they did not come to play by allowing big gains in the running game and doing nothing on offense. A week after shredding Penn State for 400 yards in the air, Sparty managed 131 yards while throwing two interceptions.

24. Mississippi State (7–3, 3–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 19
This week: Lost to Alabama, 31–24
Next week: at Arkansas

Nick Fitzgerald threw for 158 yards and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bulldogs to the brink of an upset. But the defense could not hold Alabama in the final stretches, allowing the Crimson Tide to march 68 yards in just 44 seconds for the winning score. The Bulldogs had the football the majority of the night, and were efficient on third down but could not capitalize and turn opportunities into points when it was most needed.

25. Boise State (8–2, 6–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Colorado State, 59-52 (OT)
Next week: vs. Air Force

Is Boise State a legitimate Top 25 team? Depends on whom you ask and what day you ask, but for now the Broncos continue to hover at the bottom of these rankings because they keep on winning. In a game they had no business taking, the Broncos came back from a 25-point first-half deficit and a 16-point hole with three minutes left to come within one game of clinching a division title.

Out: None. Maybe next week: Army, NC State, Florida Atlantic. By conference: Big Ten (5), Big 12 (4), SEC (4), Pac-12 (4), ACC (3), AAC (3), MWC (1), Independent (1).

Week 12 Power Rankings: Auburn Isn't Playing Like a Two-Loss Team

It’s getting increasingly likely that one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff field will finish with two losses for the first time in the format’s history, and the strongest candidate to make that history is the one that just dominated the No. 1 team in the nation.

Fresh off a 40–17 win over Georgia, Auburn in the best position to crash the playoffs based on who the Tigers have beaten (their blowout win over Mississippi State is looking better with time) and who they still have to play. Just imagine where they would be if they hadn’t spoiled a 20–0 lead over LSU, or if they had found a way to contain Clemson’s loaded defensive line in a September non-conference test.

If the Tigers beat Alabama on Nov. 25 and beat Georgia again in the SEC Championship, they’d have the country’s most impressive set of wins in the last month of the season. Make no mistake about it; this is a complete team, equipped with a quarterback who can stretch the field, a running back capable of 30-plus carries and an opportunistic defense capable of shutting down any SEC offense.

Now on to this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Alabama (10–0, 7–0 SEC)

Previous ranking: 1
This week: Beat Mississippi State, 31–24
Next week: vs. Mercer

Alabama was finally challenged this season, but it remains to be seen how this performance will look in two weeks when the SEC West crown will be decided against Auburn. In beating Mississippi State for the 10th straight time, the Crimson Tide should vault to No. 1 when the College Football Playoff rankings come out this week.

2. Oklahoma (9–1, 6–1 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 3
This week: Beat TCU, 38–20
Next week: at Kansas

TCU was supposed to be the one Big 12 team that played defense, but it was not equal to the task of slowing the nation’s best offense. Baker Mayfield threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns, cementing his Heisman frontrunner status as Oklahoma gained 533 yards to take sole possession of first place in the conference. The Sooners’ rushing attack was led by Rodney Anderson’s 151 yards and two touchdowns.

3. Clemson (9–1, 7–1 ACC)

Previous ranking: 4
This week: Beat Florida State, 31–14
Next week: vs. The Citadel

The ACC title game is set, and Clemson will take on Miami with a playoff spot likely on the line. Kelly Bryant completed 20 of his 30 passes, but those completions went for only 151 yards against a talented Seminoles defense. The Tigers get a chance to tune up their offense next week against an FCS opponent.

4. Miami (9–0, 6–0 ACC)

Previous ranking: 6
This week: Beat Notre Dame, 41–8
Next week: vs. Virginia

The turnover chain seemed to get more screen time than ever on Saturday night thanks to an onslaught of miscues by Notre Dame that led directly to 24 Miami points. The Hurricanes secured their place in the ACC title game, but they still have trap games against a decent Virginia squad and a late-November road trip to Pittsburgh before they see Clemson in Charlotte.

5. Wisconsin (10–0, 7–0 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 7
This week: Beat Iowa, 38-14
Next week: vs. Michigan

Wisconsin moved to 10–0, wrapped up the unspectacular Big Ten West and continued to get little national respect. The Badgers’ defense has beat up on its divisional competition all season, with Iowa the latest victim. The Hawkeyes had only four first downs and 66 yards of offense. Running back Jonathan Taylor has all but claimed Freshman of the Year honors, rumbling for another 157 yards on 29 carries.

6. Auburn (8–2, 6­–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Beat Georgia, 40–17
Next week: vs. Louisiana–Monroe

The Tigers took apart a Georgia defense that was among the best in the country and did so with relative ease. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham had three touchdown passes, and Kerryon Johnson had 167 yards rushing and a touchdown on a 55-yard fourth-quarter screen pass that sealed the statement win.

7. Georgia (9–1, 6–1 SEC)

Previous ranking: 2
This week: Lost to Auburn, 40–17
Next week: vs. Kentucky

The narrative of Georgia as a one-dimensional team on offense came to fruition as freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was unable to compensate when Auburn’s front seven shut down the running game. Georgia ends the season with Kentucky and Georgia Tech before the SEC title game.

8. Notre Dame (8–2)

Previous ranking: 5
This week: Lost to Miami, 41–8
Next game: vs. Navy

The question the Irish needed to be answered before Saturday's game was whether they could do enough with Brandon Wimbush in the passing game to balance the running attack. The answer turned out to be an emphatic no, as the Hurricanes harrassed Wimbush all night to end any playoff hopes in South Bend. Turning the ball over four times didn’t help either.

9. Ohio State (8­-2, 6–1 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 12
This week: Beat Michigan State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Illinois

It’s baffling how Ohio State can look like the biggest fraud in college football one week and one of the nation’s best teams the next. In a rout of Michigan State, the Buckeyes set the stage to win their division if they can take their next two games. Ohio State’s defense showed up in a big way, holding Michigan State to 195 yards of offense, racking up six sacks and forcing three turnovers.

10. UCF (9–0, 6–0 AAC)

Previous ranking: 10
This week: Beat UConn, 49–24
Next week: at Temple

The Knights don’t have many flaws, but the ones they do have don’t bode well for when the schedule gets touger in the final weeks. Quarterback McKenzie Milton continued his steady play with 311 yards passing, but the defense did let UConn have success on the ground. UCF is also one of the most penalized teams in the nation and added 10 more to its count on Saturday.

11. USC (9–2, 7–1 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 13
This week: Beat Colorado, 38–24
Next week: vs. UCLA

Sam Darnold threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns as USC jumped out to a 27–0 lead in Boulder en route to clinching the Pac–12 South title. While the victory wasn’t anything special, the Trojans have now won three in a row since a blowout loss to Notre Dame and are trending in the right direction, even though a playoff berth seems like a long shot at this point.

12. Penn State (8–2, 5–2 Big 10)

Previous ranking: 14
Last week: Beat Rutgers, 35­–6
Next week: vs. Nebraska

In the last three weeks, Penn State went from being ranked No. 2 in two polls and having the player many saw as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner to 8–2 and on the outside looking in on the major bowls. Saquon Barkley had 35 yards on the ground against Rutgers, his third straight game with less than 100 yards rushing.

13. TCU (8–2, 5-2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 9
This week: Lost to Oklahoma, 38–20
Next game: at Texas Tech

All is not lost for the Horned Frogs, who still go to the Big 12 title game if they win out. Their vaunted defense simply could not slow Oklahoma down in the first half, and by the time they did, the game was completely out of reach. TCU gave up 13 plays of 10 or more yards in the first half alone.

14. Washington (8–2, 5–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 8
This week: Lost to Stanford, 30–22
Next week: vs. Utah

Washington shouldn't have to worry about the East Coast viewership of its late-night games anymore now that the playoff is out of the question. Jake Browning threw for 190 yards and Myles Gaskin ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns, but the Huskies’ inability to sustain drives did them in.

15. Oklahoma State (8–2, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 15
Last week: Beat Iowa State, 49–42
Next week: vs. Kansas State

Oklahoma State rallied twice–once early and once late–to keep its conference title game hopes alive, beating Iowa State for the sixth year in a row. Mason Rudolph had 376 yards passing and three touchdowns, including two in the final six minutes, as the Cowboys used a last–minute interception to thwart the upset attempt. The Cowboys’ defense looked like it still hadn’t recovered from Bedlam, giving up 30 first downs and 491 yards to Iowa State.

16. Memphis (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 17
This week: Off
Next week: vs. SMU

Memphis will wrap up the AAC West and a spot in the conference title game with a victory over SMU, which has lost three straight to the Tigers. While their offense is explosive, their lack of discipline could hold them back: The Tigers are averaging more than eight penalties per game.

17. Virginia Tech (7–3, 3–3 ACC)

Previous ranking: 11
This week: Lost to Georgia Tech, 28–22
Next week: vs. Pittsburgh

Georgia Tech completed two passes the entire game against Virginia Tech, but those two completions went 60 and 80 yards for touchdowns, the last providing the game-winning score. The Hokies had trouble moving the ball for the second consecutive week, averaging a miserable 2.9 yards per carry.

18. Washington State (9–2, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 20
Last week: Beat Utah, 33–25
Next week: Off; next game Nov. 25 vs. Washington

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the Pac-12 record for career touchdown passes. Utah did all it could to help out the Cougars by turning the ball over seven times, and coordinator Alex Grinch’s much-improved defense also had seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Washington State is just one victory from playing in the Pac-12 title game, but Washington has won four straight Apple Cups.

19. Michigan (8–2, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 21
This week: Beat Maryland, 35–10
Next week: at Wisconsin

Michigan has not been in the national conversation for a while, but that all could change in Week 12 when the Wolverines try to beat Wisconsin and officially cast the Big Ten to the fringe of the playoff picture. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Peters has performed admirably since taking over as starter, with two touchdown passes against Maryland.

20. Stanford (7–3, 6–2 Pac–12)

Previous ranking: 22
This week: Beat Washington, 30–22
Next week: vs. California

Stanford got right back in the Pac-12 North race thanks to Bryce Love, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns. Love also got some help from quarterback K.J. Costello’s 211 passing yards, with key completions that helped control the clock and keep Washington’s offense off the field. The Cardinal will represent the Pac-12 North in the conference title game if Washington State loses to Washington.

21. West Virginia (7–3, 5–2 Big 12)

Previous ranking: 23
Last week: Beat Kansas State, 28–23
Next week: vs. Texas

The combination of Will Grier and David Sills V worked once again as the duo combined for two scores in West Virginia’s victory over Kansas State. Grier finished with 372 yards and four touchdowns and now is second in the NCAA with 34 touchdown passes, 17 of which have gone to Sills. Kansas State has four losses this season by a touchdown or less and is in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time in eight years.

22. South Florida (8–1, 5–1 AAC)

Previous ranking: 24
Last week: Off
Next week: vs. Tulsa

South Florida will need to win out to have a chance of securing the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bid, starting with a tune-up opportunity against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are absolutely terrible on defense, ranking in the bottom third of the NCAA in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing efficiency defense. You get the point.

23. Michigan State (7–3, 5–2 Big Ten)

Previous ranking: 16
Last week: Lost to Ohio State, 48–3
Next week: vs. Maryland

Michigan State learned the hard way of expecting Ohio State to turn in two sloppy performances in a row. This time, it was the Spartans who looked like they did not come to play by allowing big gains in the running game and doing nothing on offense. A week after shredding Penn State for 400 yards in the air, Sparty managed 131 yards while throwing two interceptions.

24. Mississippi State (7–3, 3–3 SEC)

Previous ranking: 19
This week: Lost to Alabama, 31–24
Next week: at Arkansas

Nick Fitzgerald threw for 158 yards and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bulldogs to the brink of an upset. But the defense could not hold Alabama in the final stretches, allowing the Crimson Tide to march 68 yards in just 44 seconds for the winning score. The Bulldogs had the football the majority of the night, and were efficient on third down but could not capitalize and turn opportunities into points when it was most needed.

25. Boise State (8–2, 6–0 MWC)

Previous ranking: 25
This week: Beat Colorado State, 59-52 (OT)
Next week: vs. Air Force

Is Boise State a legitimate Top 25 team? Depends on whom you ask and what day you ask, but for now the Broncos continue to hover at the bottom of these rankings because they keep on winning. In a game they had no business taking, the Broncos came back from a 25-point first-half deficit and a 16-point hole with three minutes left to come within one game of clinching a division title.

Out: None. Maybe next week: Army, NC State, Florida Atlantic. By conference: Big Ten (5), Big 12 (4), SEC (4), Pac-12 (4), ACC (3), AAC (3), MWC (1), Independent (1).

Butch Jones Paid a Steep Price for His Own Progress at Tennessee

As his Tennessee program stood at a crossroads, Butch Jones chose a word that looks far more prescient today than it did when he uttered this statement.

“As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” Jones said in March 2015. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’re still a couple of recruiting classes away from being where we expect to be, but that’s why you come to Tennessee—because of the expectations. We want that.”

Caretaker. It’s such an interesting word. Jones used it out of respect because Tennessee’s program really belongs to Gen. Robert Neyland and Johnny Majors and Condredge Holloway and Phillip Fulmer and Al Wilson and all the other Volunteers who built it. But as it turned out, Jones had described himself correctly. He came along at a dark time and pulled the program out of a hole. But once he got Tennessee back on level ground, he couldn’t take the Vols any higher.

If first-year Tennessee athletic director John Currie—who fired Jones on Sunday following a 50–17 loss at Missouri—makes his first football hire as an AD a good one, that should be Jones’s legacy. He was a caretaker. That word has negative and positive connotations, and in the case of Jones at Tennessee, both are true.

The week that Jones so aptly described himself, he and his staff had apologized to NFL coaches, executives and scouts who made the trip to Knoxville for Tennessee’s pro day. Two seasons removed from the end of the Derek Dooley era, the Vols didn’t have any outgoing players those people wanted to draft. But at a spring practice session the next day, Jones could look across the field and find future NFL players at multiple positions. Those were his players, the ones he had recruited to help bridge the talent gap Dooley’s recruiting had created. (Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in his final class in 2012. There are few more blatant acts of coaching malpractice.) The members of the class of 2014—when the typically up-and-down state of Tennessee produced a bumper crop and the Vols cleaned up—were coming of age and would be major contributors in ’15. Josh Dobbs, the quarterback Jones and his staff had flipped from Arizona State following their arrival in Knoxville from Cincinnati, was an established starter.

But with that surge in talent came the expectations Jones mentioned in the above quote. And though he claimed to want them, he never seemed comfortable with them during his tenure. Jones thought the Vols still needed more time. He had made “brick by brick” his mantra as he restocked the program, but he failed to understand that he had enough bricks and just needed to deploy them properly. The Vols had grown accustomed to winning big during the Fulmer era, but Lane Kiffin’s one-year tenure and the Dooley era had lowered the bar. The fan base was patient as Jones restored the roster, but once that fan base realized Jones had the talent to compete in the mediocre SEC East, it started expecting more. As the 2015 season loomed, Missouri was coming off two consecutive East titles. Georgia fans and boosters were growing increasingly frustrated with Mark Richt’s inability to dominate a division dying to be dominated. Florida had just fired Will Muschamp and replaced him with Jim McElwain. The time was right.

Then came fourth-and-14 in Gainesville. The Vols gave up a 37-yard Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown and wound up losing 28–27. That stretched Florida’s winning streak against Tennessee to 11. The following week, still reeling from the loss to the Gators, the Vols lost to Arkansas at home. That crushed their chances to win the East, but it didn’t crush the fan base’s spirit. Tennessee hadn’t won big in a while. The players needed to learn how to win such games and deal with the emotional highs and lows of the season. When Tennessee won seven of its last eight and brought back a loaded roster, 2016 felt like the year.

And it started well enough. Tennessee whipped eventual ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. After a terrible first half the two weeks later, Tennessee stormed back and roared to a 38–28 win that snapped the losing streak against Florida. The following week, the Vols won at Georgia on a Hail Mary. Everything was falling into place.

The next week, a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M gutted the Vols’ defense. The banged-up group wasn’t expected to beat Alabama the next week, but it was expected to compete. It did not, falling 49–10. Still, all Tennessee had to do to force a rematch in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide was hold serve against the worst teams in possibly the worst division in the Power 5. And after an open date to correct any lingering issues, Tennessee went out and lost to South Carolina.

That was the beginning of the end for Jones. He bristled at the criticism that came his way as Florida stumbled into a second consecutive SEC East title. And after the Gators clinched that title with a November win at LSU, Jones was asked about the seniors who would leave Tennessee without a title of any kind. This is how he responded.

The Championship of Life was a noble enough sentiment. Jones wanted to thank those seniors for enduring some tough times in the hope of creating a better future for the program. But because Jones was so reluctant to publicly express disappointment for any of the team’s failures, it came off as him being O.K. with the fact that the Vols didn’t win the East. It wasn’t O.K. with him, but his words didn’t convey that message. It got even worse that Saturday when a Tennessee team that would have gone to the Sugar Bowl with a win lost 45–34 to Vanderbilt.

It probably was over for Jones then, but he’d made too much progress given where Tennessee was when he arrived to be denied another chance. Unfortunately, a last-second loss to Florida on Sept. 16 started a slide that still hasn’t ended. Tennessee now has lost its last game against all 13 fellow SEC teams. The Volunteers look headed for an 0–8 conference record this season. Currie had hoped to wait until the season’s end to jettison Jones, but losing a local five-star recruit (Class of 2018 offensive lineman Cade Mays) and the apathetic performance at Missouri left Currie no choice.

Despite this season’s record, Tennessee is a far better job today than when Jones got it. Given what the Vols return, a solid hire by Currie should have Tennessee winning immediately. While Florida—which also has an opening—has easier access to good recruits and might have a higher ceiling long-term, Tennessee has better facilities and might be a quicker turnaround.

In 2012, coaches contacted about the job looked at Tennessee’s roster and blanched. Charlie Strong wanted to stay at Louisville another year. Mike Gundy was destined for even bigger things at Oklahoma State. This time around, more candidates will be interested because they’ll see a roster they can win with quickly.

That roster is there because of Jones. He didn’t finish the house, and the mounting construction delays necessitated a sale to another builder, but he brought in enough bricks to lay a solid foundation. Now it’s up to Currie to find the coach who will finish the job.

A Random Ranking

This week, I’ll be ranking my favorite cartoon organizations bent on world and/or intergalactic domination. I’m sticking to intellectual property that is best known for its television cartoon version, so no Star Wars, Marvel or DC here. Also, these must be organizations with a name and a defined organizational chart. Groups of enemies that never bothered incorporating—such as the creatures that fought the ThunderCats—are ineligible.

1. Cobra

2. The Decepticons

3. V.E.N.O.M

4. The Really Rottens

5. Hordak and the Evil Horde

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable in Starkville, but they survived. For the first time since the national title game, Jalen Hurts had to lead his team down the field for a score late in the fourth quarter. Just as he did in the national title game, Hurts came through. (Unfortunately for Alabama in that game in Tampa in January, so did Deshaun Watson on the ensuing possession.) The Iron Bowl doesn’t look like a guaranteed win for Alabama after the way Auburn played in its win against Georgia, but Hurts’s ability to escape the pocket and turn an opponent’s successful pass rush into a big gain will help tremendously if Auburn’s defensive front is as dominant as it was Saturday.

2. Miami

Notre Dame is a good team, and the Hurricanes crushed the Fighting Irish. The Miami team that barely squeezed by some average opponents seems to have shed its skin and emerged as a dominant group that looks capable of winning the ACC and making the playoff. Now a team unaccustomed to dealing with this kind of success must win two games it should win and then beat a team very accustomed to playing in high-stakes games (Clemson) in the ACC title game.

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners have hit their stride at the perfect time, and the way things are going, they might even be able to survive another loss and still make the playoff. If Oklahoma lost to West Virginia on Nov. 25 and still won the Big 12 title game and then Ohio State beat Wisconsin to become a two-loss Big Ten champ, the Sooners would have to be in over the Buckeyes by virtue of their head-to-head win in Columbus. But if Oklahoma keeps playing the way it has the past few weeks, this won’t be an issue at all. The Sooners will just be playing for a higher seed.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers held an Iowa team that rolled up 487 yards against Ohio State the previous week to 66 yards. That’s not a total for a quarter or for a half. That’s all Iowa gained the entire game. Wisconsin still must get past Michigan, Minnesota and the Big Ten East winner (probably Ohio State), but if the Badgers keep playing that kind of defense and freshman back Jonathan Taylor keeps averaging around seven yards a carry, they can run the table.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s impossible to single out one Auburn offensive lineman for this week’s honor because the entire group routinely reset the line of scrimmage against Georgia. The Tigers were getting such a good push that some Kerryon Johnson runs looked like solid stops for the defense and wound up being five-yard gainers. So congratulations to Austin Golson, Marquel Harrell, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James.

Three and Out

1. Tennessee made its move Sunday after an embarrassing loss at Missouri. Nebraska laid a similarly huge egg Saturday with a 54–21 loss at Minnesota but stood pat on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the Cornhuskers are keeping Mike Riley. It only means the end probably won’t come until after the season finale against Iowa on Black Friday.

The game didn’t end Riley’s tenure, but it did hand Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a bit of karmic justice. A few days after Diaco criticized the rugby tackling techniques used by former coordinator Mark Banker—and used by Washington, which tackles much better than Nebraska does—Diaco’s defense got shredded for 409 rushing yards (a 9.1-yard average) by the Gophers, who entered the game averaging only 3.8 yards a carry on the season.

Banker told the Omaha World-Herald that Diaco was just making excuses, and he was correct. Coaches like Diaco who insist that only their genius can save a unit or a program tend to get exposed. Diaco’s day came Saturday.

2. Two banners flew over the Rose Bowl as UCLA beat Arizona State on Saturday to even its record at 5–5. Both banners demanded the firing of Bruins coach Jim Mora.

UCLA players noticed the banners, and quarterback Josh Rosen was not pleased. “It’s just absurd,” Rosen told the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s disrespectful, it’s disgusting. If you don’t think Coach Mora should be our coach, go talk to our AD yourself. Don’t publicly do something stupid that costs an unnecessary amount of money. That’s ridiculous. We love our coach. We all would do anything for him and know he would do anything for us.”

3. When the season began, Austin Peay hadn’t won a game since October 2014. After Saturday’s 31–24 comeback win against Eastern Kentucky, coach Will Healy and the Governors are now 7–4 and have a shot to make the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday against Eastern Illinois.

For Your Ears

On this episode of the Place At The Table podcast, SI’s own Bruce Feldman joins me to discuss the firing of Butch Jones and the playoff picture after a wild weekend.

What’s Eating Andy?

If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know I’m terrible at picking games. But my predictions of wins for Georgia and Notre Dame on Saturday were particularly egregious. Fortunately, this could be a good thing for Tennessee fans angry at the state of their program. I’ve been adamant that Jon Gruden would not take a lower (or equal) paying job that requires him to talk to 17-year-olds eight hours a day in between coaching a football team. Given that I’ve been wrong about everything else, maybe I’ll be wrong about the GRUMORS, too.

What’s Andy Eating?

I drank my first bourbon barrel-aged beer sometime in 2015 for two reasons.

• I like bourbon.

• I like beer.

That beer was Boulevard Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Quad. (Which now is available in four-bottle packs instead of only wine bottle-sized bombers.) The aging process takes an already great beer (The Sixth Glass, a Belgian Quadrupel) and adds a rich, complex sweetness. It also jacks up the alcohol contend a tad. Bourbon Barrel quad remains my favorite beer to this day, but I bet I’d have a new favorite by now if I lived in Seattle. Brother Barrel would give me plenty of choices.

The proprietors of Elliott Bay Brewery love the bourbon barrel-aged stuff even more than I do. As they watched the progress of the craft beer business and plotted their next move, they reasoned that barrel-aged and sour beers seemed like the next big thing. So they began stashing beer in barrels beneath their building in the Lake City neighborhood, and they waited. Some beers stayed in those barrels for a year. Some stayed for 18 months. This past spring, once enough of the beers had finished the aging process, they opened Brother Barrel next door. Now, thirsty and hungry patrons can swing by and sample a rotating selection of the aged stuff while nibbling on house-made charcuterie.

When I visited, my favorite was the barleywine aged in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel. It packed a punch (9.9% alcohol), but it drank like dessert as the faint flavor of bourbon paired with caramel, vanilla and chocolate notes. The most interesting entry was Brewer’s Blend No. 4, which mixed a previous blend with a porter, a stout and an imperial stout. That mixture was then aged in a bourbon barrel, and it came out with a tart cherry kick followed by a deep, sweet finish.

The gin barrel–aged Belgian golden took me out of my bourbon barrel comfort zone, but I’m glad I left. A blend of two saisons and a tripel, this one came out of the barrel as the hairiest-chested fruity beer ever concocted.

Between sips, I ate slices of salami and prosciutto and hunks of bread dipped in olive oil. It was neither the fanciest nor the most decadent meal, but the small plates are on the menu to help prepare the palate for the next wave of barrel-aged goodness.

If you visit now, you might not encounter the same beers I did. That’s part of the fun at Brother Barrel. When one barrel gets emptied, another takes its place. I only wish I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, because I’d cherish a taste from every one.

Butch Jones Paid a Steep Price for His Own Progress at Tennessee

As his Tennessee program stood at a crossroads, Butch Jones chose a word that looks far more prescient today than it did when he uttered this statement.

“As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” Jones said in March 2015. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’re still a couple of recruiting classes away from being where we expect to be, but that’s why you come to Tennessee—because of the expectations. We want that.”

Caretaker. It’s such an interesting word. Jones used it out of respect because Tennessee’s program really belongs to Gen. Robert Neyland and Johnny Majors and Condredge Holloway and Phillip Fulmer and Al Wilson and all the other Volunteers who built it. But as it turned out, Jones had described himself correctly. He came along at a dark time and pulled the program out of a hole. But once he got Tennessee back on level ground, he couldn’t take the Vols any higher.

If first-year Tennessee athletic director John Currie—who fired Jones on Sunday following a 50–17 loss at Missouri—makes his first football hire as an AD a good one, that should be Jones’s legacy. He was a caretaker. That word has negative and positive connotations, and in the case of Jones at Tennessee, both are true.

The week that Jones so aptly described himself, he and his staff had apologized to NFL coaches, executives and scouts who made the trip to Knoxville for Tennessee’s pro day. Two seasons removed from the end of the Derek Dooley era, the Vols didn’t have any outgoing players those people wanted to draft. But at a spring practice session the next day, Jones could look across the field and find future NFL players at multiple positions. Those were his players, the ones he had recruited to help bridge the talent gap Dooley’s recruiting had created. (Dooley signed zero offensive linemen in his final class in 2012. There are few more blatant acts of coaching malpractice.) The members of the class of 2014—when the typically up-and-down state of Tennessee produced a bumper crop and the Vols cleaned up—were coming of age and would be major contributors in ’15. Josh Dobbs, the quarterback Jones and his staff had flipped from Arizona State following their arrival in Knoxville from Cincinnati, was an established starter.

But with that surge in talent came the expectations Jones mentioned in the above quote. And though he claimed to want them, he never seemed comfortable with them during his tenure. Jones thought the Vols still needed more time. He had made “brick by brick” his mantra as he restocked the program, but he failed to understand that he had enough bricks and just needed to deploy them properly. The Vols had grown accustomed to winning big during the Fulmer era, but Lane Kiffin’s one-year tenure and the Dooley era had lowered the bar. The fan base was patient as Jones restored the roster, but once that fan base realized Jones had the talent to compete in the mediocre SEC East, it started expecting more. As the 2015 season loomed, Missouri was coming off two consecutive East titles. Georgia fans and boosters were growing increasingly frustrated with Mark Richt’s inability to dominate a division dying to be dominated. Florida had just fired Will Muschamp and replaced him with Jim McElwain. The time was right.

Then came fourth-and-14 in Gainesville. The Vols gave up a 37-yard Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown and wound up losing 28–27. That stretched Florida’s winning streak against Tennessee to 11. The following week, still reeling from the loss to the Gators, the Vols lost to Arkansas at home. That crushed their chances to win the East, but it didn’t crush the fan base’s spirit. Tennessee hadn’t won big in a while. The players needed to learn how to win such games and deal with the emotional highs and lows of the season. When Tennessee won seven of its last eight and brought back a loaded roster, 2016 felt like the year.

And it started well enough. Tennessee whipped eventual ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. After a terrible first half the two weeks later, Tennessee stormed back and roared to a 38–28 win that snapped the losing streak against Florida. The following week, the Vols won at Georgia on a Hail Mary. Everything was falling into place.

The next week, a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M gutted the Vols’ defense. The banged-up group wasn’t expected to beat Alabama the next week, but it was expected to compete. It did not, falling 49–10. Still, all Tennessee had to do to force a rematch in Atlanta against the Crimson Tide was hold serve against the worst teams in possibly the worst division in the Power 5. And after an open date to correct any lingering issues, Tennessee went out and lost to South Carolina.

That was the beginning of the end for Jones. He bristled at the criticism that came his way as Florida stumbled into a second consecutive SEC East title. And after the Gators clinched that title with a November win at LSU, Jones was asked about the seniors who would leave Tennessee without a title of any kind. This is how he responded.

The Championship of Life was a noble enough sentiment. Jones wanted to thank those seniors for enduring some tough times in the hope of creating a better future for the program. But because Jones was so reluctant to publicly express disappointment for any of the team’s failures, it came off as him being O.K. with the fact that the Vols didn’t win the East. It wasn’t O.K. with him, but his words didn’t convey that message. It got even worse that Saturday when a Tennessee team that would have gone to the Sugar Bowl with a win lost 45–34 to Vanderbilt.

It probably was over for Jones then, but he’d made too much progress given where Tennessee was when he arrived to be denied another chance. Unfortunately, a last-second loss to Florida on Sept. 16 started a slide that still hasn’t ended. Tennessee now has lost its last game against all 13 fellow SEC teams. The Volunteers look headed for an 0–8 conference record this season. Currie had hoped to wait until the season’s end to jettison Jones, but losing a local five-star recruit (Class of 2018 offensive lineman Cade Mays) and the apathetic performance at Missouri left Currie no choice.

Despite this season’s record, Tennessee is a far better job today than when Jones got it. Given what the Vols return, a solid hire by Currie should have Tennessee winning immediately. While Florida—which also has an opening—has easier access to good recruits and might have a higher ceiling long-term, Tennessee has better facilities and might be a quicker turnaround.

In 2012, coaches contacted about the job looked at Tennessee’s roster and blanched. Charlie Strong wanted to stay at Louisville another year. Mike Gundy was destined for even bigger things at Oklahoma State. This time around, more candidates will be interested because they’ll see a roster they can win with quickly.

That roster is there because of Jones. He didn’t finish the house, and the mounting construction delays necessitated a sale to another builder, but he brought in enough bricks to lay a solid foundation. Now it’s up to Currie to find the coach who will finish the job.

A Random Ranking

This week, I’ll be ranking my favorite cartoon organizations bent on world and/or intergalactic domination. I’m sticking to intellectual property that is best known for its television cartoon version, so no Star Wars, Marvel or DC here. Also, these must be organizations with a name and a defined organizational chart. Groups of enemies that never bothered incorporating—such as the creatures that fought the ThunderCats—are ineligible.

1. Cobra

2. The Decepticons

3. V.E.N.O.M

4. The Really Rottens

5. Hordak and the Evil Horde

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked vulnerable in Starkville, but they survived. For the first time since the national title game, Jalen Hurts had to lead his team down the field for a score late in the fourth quarter. Just as he did in the national title game, Hurts came through. (Unfortunately for Alabama in that game in Tampa in January, so did Deshaun Watson on the ensuing possession.) The Iron Bowl doesn’t look like a guaranteed win for Alabama after the way Auburn played in its win against Georgia, but Hurts’s ability to escape the pocket and turn an opponent’s successful pass rush into a big gain will help tremendously if Auburn’s defensive front is as dominant as it was Saturday.

2. Miami

Notre Dame is a good team, and the Hurricanes crushed the Fighting Irish. The Miami team that barely squeezed by some average opponents seems to have shed its skin and emerged as a dominant group that looks capable of winning the ACC and making the playoff. Now a team unaccustomed to dealing with this kind of success must win two games it should win and then beat a team very accustomed to playing in high-stakes games (Clemson) in the ACC title game.

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners have hit their stride at the perfect time, and the way things are going, they might even be able to survive another loss and still make the playoff. If Oklahoma lost to West Virginia on Nov. 25 and still won the Big 12 title game and then Ohio State beat Wisconsin to become a two-loss Big Ten champ, the Sooners would have to be in over the Buckeyes by virtue of their head-to-head win in Columbus. But if Oklahoma keeps playing the way it has the past few weeks, this won’t be an issue at all. The Sooners will just be playing for a higher seed.

4. Wisconsin

The Badgers held an Iowa team that rolled up 487 yards against Ohio State the previous week to 66 yards. That’s not a total for a quarter or for a half. That’s all Iowa gained the entire game. Wisconsin still must get past Michigan, Minnesota and the Big Ten East winner (probably Ohio State), but if the Badgers keep playing that kind of defense and freshman back Jonathan Taylor keeps averaging around seven yards a carry, they can run the table.

Big Ugl(ies) of the Week

It’s impossible to single out one Auburn offensive lineman for this week’s honor because the entire group routinely reset the line of scrimmage against Georgia. The Tigers were getting such a good push that some Kerryon Johnson runs looked like solid stops for the defense and wound up being five-yard gainers. So congratulations to Austin Golson, Marquel Harrell, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James.

Three and Out

1. Tennessee made its move Sunday after an embarrassing loss at Missouri. Nebraska laid a similarly huge egg Saturday with a 54–21 loss at Minnesota but stood pat on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the Cornhuskers are keeping Mike Riley. It only means the end probably won’t come until after the season finale against Iowa on Black Friday.

The game didn’t end Riley’s tenure, but it did hand Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a bit of karmic justice. A few days after Diaco criticized the rugby tackling techniques used by former coordinator Mark Banker—and used by Washington, which tackles much better than Nebraska does—Diaco’s defense got shredded for 409 rushing yards (a 9.1-yard average) by the Gophers, who entered the game averaging only 3.8 yards a carry on the season.

Banker told the Omaha World-Herald that Diaco was just making excuses, and he was correct. Coaches like Diaco who insist that only their genius can save a unit or a program tend to get exposed. Diaco’s day came Saturday.

2. Two banners flew over the Rose Bowl as UCLA beat Arizona State on Saturday to even its record at 5–5. Both banners demanded the firing of Bruins coach Jim Mora.

UCLA players noticed the banners, and quarterback Josh Rosen was not pleased. “It’s just absurd,” Rosen told the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s disrespectful, it’s disgusting. If you don’t think Coach Mora should be our coach, go talk to our AD yourself. Don’t publicly do something stupid that costs an unnecessary amount of money. That’s ridiculous. We love our coach. We all would do anything for him and know he would do anything for us.”

3. When the season began, Austin Peay hadn’t won a game since October 2014. After Saturday’s 31–24 comeback win against Eastern Kentucky, coach Will Healy and the Governors are now 7–4 and have a shot to make the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday against Eastern Illinois.

For Your Ears

On this episode of the Place At The Table podcast, SI’s own Bruce Feldman joins me to discuss the firing of Butch Jones and the playoff picture after a wild weekend.

What’s Eating Andy?

If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know I’m terrible at picking games. But my predictions of wins for Georgia and Notre Dame on Saturday were particularly egregious. Fortunately, this could be a good thing for Tennessee fans angry at the state of their program. I’ve been adamant that Jon Gruden would not take a lower (or equal) paying job that requires him to talk to 17-year-olds eight hours a day in between coaching a football team. Given that I’ve been wrong about everything else, maybe I’ll be wrong about the GRUMORS, too.

What’s Andy Eating?

I drank my first bourbon barrel-aged beer sometime in 2015 for two reasons.

• I like bourbon.

• I like beer.

That beer was Boulevard Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Quad. (Which now is available in four-bottle packs instead of only wine bottle-sized bombers.) The aging process takes an already great beer (The Sixth Glass, a Belgian Quadrupel) and adds a rich, complex sweetness. It also jacks up the alcohol contend a tad. Bourbon Barrel quad remains my favorite beer to this day, but I bet I’d have a new favorite by now if I lived in Seattle. Brother Barrel would give me plenty of choices.

The proprietors of Elliott Bay Brewery love the bourbon barrel-aged stuff even more than I do. As they watched the progress of the craft beer business and plotted their next move, they reasoned that barrel-aged and sour beers seemed like the next big thing. So they began stashing beer in barrels beneath their building in the Lake City neighborhood, and they waited. Some beers stayed in those barrels for a year. Some stayed for 18 months. This past spring, once enough of the beers had finished the aging process, they opened Brother Barrel next door. Now, thirsty and hungry patrons can swing by and sample a rotating selection of the aged stuff while nibbling on house-made charcuterie.

When I visited, my favorite was the barleywine aged in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel. It packed a punch (9.9% alcohol), but it drank like dessert as the faint flavor of bourbon paired with caramel, vanilla and chocolate notes. The most interesting entry was Brewer’s Blend No. 4, which mixed a previous blend with a porter, a stout and an imperial stout. That mixture was then aged in a bourbon barrel, and it came out with a tart cherry kick followed by a deep, sweet finish.

The gin barrel–aged Belgian golden took me out of my bourbon barrel comfort zone, but I’m glad I left. A blend of two saisons and a tripel, this one came out of the barrel as the hairiest-chested fruity beer ever concocted.

Between sips, I ate slices of salami and prosciutto and hunks of bread dipped in olive oil. It was neither the fanciest nor the most decadent meal, but the small plates are on the menu to help prepare the palate for the next wave of barrel-aged goodness.

If you visit now, you might not encounter the same beers I did. That’s part of the fun at Brother Barrel. When one barrel gets emptied, another takes its place. I only wish I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, because I’d cherish a taste from every one.

AP Top 25: Miami Up to No. 2 After Routing Notre Dame

Miami is back in the national conversation and back near the top of the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll.

Alabama is still No. 1, thanks to their last minute victory over Mississippi State. The Hurricanes dominated Notre Dame and are now No. 2 in the polls.

Oklahoma is No. 3 after a win against TCU with Clemson and Wisconsin rounding out the top five.

Georgia, who will fall from the top of the College Football Playoff rankings at a blowout loss to Auburn, tumbled down to No. 7, one spot behind the Tigers.

Here is the rest of the AP Top 25:

1. Alabama
2. Miami
3. Oklahoma
4. Clemson
5. Wisconsin
6. Auburn
7. Georgia
8. Ohio State
9. Notre Dame
10. Oklahoma State
11. TCU
12. USC
13. Penn State
14. UCF
15. Washington State
16. Washington
17. Mississippi State
18. Memphis
19. Michigan
20. Stanford
21. LSU
22. Michigan State
23. South Florida
24. West Virginia
25. NC State

Bowl Projections: Plenty Left to Be Decided As the SEC's Picture Simplifies

Four top-10 teams fell in Week 11, altering the shape of the playoff race and creating a ripple effect that trickles all the way down to December’s first wave of bowl games through the various conference postseason contracts that fill out the lineup beyond the New Year’s Six bowls. After suffering its first loss of the season in humbling fashion, Georgia’s playoff hopes are still very much alive, but if the Bulldogs can’t upend Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game, they’re still set up well to land in a marquee bowl—and push another conference’s second- or third-best team out of the New Year’s Six. Whichever conference that would be may have an opportunity to pick up a bowl slot or two from the bottom of the SEC pecking order, where losses by Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt have increased the likelihood that the league won’t be able to fill all of its bowl slots. In any case, the dream scenario in which the SEC lands two of the four playoff spots seems to be off the table—for now.

Below, the latest look at the projected (but far from official) matchups for all 39 bowl games leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship in Atlanta on Jan. 8. Because they take into account predicted results for the final weeks of the regular season, these projections won’t change when the new playoff rankings come out on Tuesday.

Saturday, Dec. 16

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans (1 p.m., ESPN)
Sun Belt vs. C-USA
Troy vs. Southern Mississippi

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (2:30 p.m., CBSSN)
AAC vs. Sun Belt
South Florida vs. Appalachian State

Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (3:30 p.m., ABC)
?MWC vs. Pac-12
Boise State vs. Arizona State

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MWC
UTSA vs. San Diego State

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Montgomery, Ala. (8 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Toledo vs. Georgia State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton, Fla. (7 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA
Temple vs. Florida International

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, Frisco, Texas (8 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. C-USA/MAC/MWC/BYU
Houston vs. Middle Tennessee

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, St. Petersburg, Fla. (8 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. AAC
Marshall vs. Akron

Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, Nassau, Bahamas (12:30 p.m., ESPN)
C-USA vs. MAC
Florida Atlantic vs. Northern Illinois

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise (4 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. MWC
Western Michigan vs. Colorado State

Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Birmingham, Ala. (12 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. SEC
Memphis vs. Boston College

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Army vs. C-USA
Army vs. Oregon

Dollar General Bowl, Mobile, Ala. (7 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Ohio vs. Arkansas State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Honolulu, (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. MWC
SMU vs. Fresno State

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Big Ten
Texas Tech vs. North Texas

Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Syracuse vs. Central Michigan

Cactus Bowl, Phoenix (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Kansas State vs. Utah

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Florida State vs. UAB

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Georgia Tech vs. Michigan State

Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m., FOX)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Indiana vs. Washington

Texas Bowl, Houston (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Texas vs. Cal

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Md. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. AAC
Virginia vs. Navy

Camping World Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big 12
NC State vs. Iowa State

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Pac-12 vs. Big 12
Washington State vs. TCU

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, San Diego (9 p.m., FS1)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Northwestern vs. Stanford

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. (1 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. SEC
Wake Forest vs. Kentucky

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (2 p.m., CBS)
ACC vs. Pac-12
Louisville vs. Arizona

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn. (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
Texas A&M vs. Iowa

Arizona Bowl, Tucson, Ariz. (5:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Sun Belt vs. MWC
New Mexico State vs. Wyoming

Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
LSU vs. Virginia Tech

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn. (12:30 p.m., ABC)
Big 12 vs. SEC
West Virginia vs. Missouri

Monday, Jan. 1, 2018

Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN2)
Big Ten vs. SEC
Michigan vs. South Carolina

Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (1 p.m., ABC)
SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten
Mississippi State vs. Penn State

New Year's Six Bowls

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Arlington, Texas (Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Auburn vs. Notre Dame

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
USC vs. Oklahoma State

Capital One Orange Bowl, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame
Clemson vs. Georgia

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta (Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-Large
UCF vs. Ohio State

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Pasadena, Calif. (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Oklahoma vs. Miami

Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Alabama vs. Wisconsin

College Football Playoff National Championship, Atlanta (Jan. 8, 8 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinal winner vs. CFP semifinal winner

Week 11's Top 10: Nobody's Perfect, but Alabama Is the Closest

Blowout losses suffered by two of the top three teams in the country have shaken up the playoff picture as the dust settles on Week 11. A two-loss team making the playoff is seeming like a more realistic possibility all the time. Who knows—maybe two of them will get in. Here’s how the top 10 teams in the country stack up:

1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide needed a fourth-quarter rally in Starkville, but they got a nice win, their best of the season. Alabama is very banged up on defense and definitely looks vulnerable, but who else in college football do you have more faith in at this point than Nick Saban and his program?

2. Miami: I’m holding off on saying The U is back, but one thing is now for certain: The U is for real. After destroying Notre Dame to remain undefeated, Miami has outscored back-to-back Top 15 opponents 69–18 this month. The Canes looked fast and focused, and they’re playing with a ton of confidence right now.

3. Oklahoma: TCU came to Norman allowing under 14 points per game and 284 yards per game. The Sooners hung 38 on them, racking up almost 400 yards in the first half alone. The Sooners’ much-maligned defense also played well, and star quarterback Baker Mayfield is cruising to the Heisman Trophy.

4. Clemson: The Tigers took care of Florida State, which now drops to 3–6, and they still have to take care of a pretty good South Carolina team on the road to end the regular season before taking on Miami. That Week 2 win over Auburn looks better and better all the time.

5. Wisconsin: A week after Iowa blew out Ohio State, the Hawkeyes were completely shut down by a salty Wisconsin defense that held the visitors to only 66 total yards. This was the best win the Badgers have had this year. Don’t let anyone fool you: If Wisconsin wins out, it will have a spot in the playoff set aside, although it certainly didn’t hurt the cause that the Buckeyes looked so impressive routing Michigan State, setting up a Big Ten title game that gives the Badgers another shot at a statement win.

6. Auburn: Running back Kerryon Johnson was spectacular as the Tigers blew out No. 1 Georgia 40–17. Auburn pulled off the first step of their daunting three-step push to make the playoff. If the Tigers can knock off Alabama and then take care of UGA again in the conference title game, they will have a great case for the top four.

7. Georgia: A terrific defense got wrecked at the hands of an inspired Auburn offense. If the Bulldogs can knock off the SEC West champion on Dec. 2, they probably still make the playoff, but the thumping Notre Dame took in South Florida took some air out of their biggest win of the season to date.

8. Ohio State: Can a team that was blown out twice, once at home and once by an unranked opponent, still make the playoff? It’s looking a lot more plausible for Ohio State, especially after the way it hammered Michigan State in every facet of the game Saturday. If the Buckeyes run the table in impressive fashion, the hunch here is that they’ll end up in the playoff.

9. Notre Dame: The Irish were blown off the field by the Hurricanes, 41–8. A regular-season finale win at Stanford (the Cardinal look formidable again coming off an upset win over Washington) would be nice, but I don’t think Notre Dame had the margin for error to survive a second loss in the eyes of the committee.

10. USC: The Trojans have won three in a row since getting embarrassed in South Bend. Their best wins are over Stanford and Arizona, and they will likely be favored over the Pac-12 North champ in the conference title game, but at this point it seems almost impossible the Pac-12 will get a team into the playoff. The Trojans are the league’s best shot.

Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley Help Alabama Escape Trouble and Win at Mississippi State

Hours after No. 1 Georgia lost on the road to an SEC rival it had dominated over the past decade, No. 2 Alabama found itself face-to-face with the same fate in Starkville, coming dangerously close to losing to Mississippi State for the first time since Nov. 10, 2007. Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, for as rarely as they are seriously tested, head coach Nick Saban and quarterback Jalen Hurts are naturals at those types of staring contests.

Hurts hit receiver Calvin Ridley for a 31-yard completion over the middle to pick up a critical third-and-15 in the final minute, then found DeVonta Smith, who broke free for a 26-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and the Tide held on for a 31–24 win that kept them perfect on the season despite an uncharacteristically imperfect night at Davis Wade Stadium. With Georgia’s loss to Auburn, Alabama should find itself atop the next College Football Playoff rankings, and the teams right behind it have been officially reminded that Hurts and his teammates don’t wilt when they get hit in the mouth in high-stakes games.

After getting by mostly on the strength of his legs over the season’s first two months, Hurts’s 10 completions on Saturday night were massive ones. Half of them went to Ridley, who racked up 171 yards and helped set up three Alabama touchdowns, showing flashes of his breakout 2015 freshman season that have become less frequent in the past two years as the Tide have struggled to find consistency in their passing game. Those big plays helped mask the mistakes of a defense that needed more help than Nick Saban units normally do.

Over their nine-game winning streak in the series, the Crimson Tide had held Mississippi State to seven points or fewer seven times, including demoralizing 31–6 and 51–3 beatdowns in the past two years that cemented the SEC West hierarchy. The Bulldogs established in the early going that this would not be one of those games, running 28 plays and chewing a total of 15:33 of game clock with their first three drives, two of which ended in Aeris Williams touchdown runs.

When it’s not working for Nick Fitzgerald and the offense, it’s really not working, as evidenced by the consecutive blowout losses to Georgia and Auburn that tamped down the hype Mississippi State had drummed up in early September. Both of those defenses jammed the gears of the Bulldogs’ offense by forcing it to the air: Fitzgerald threw a total of 62 times and completed less than 50% of his passes in those two games.

On Saturday night, Mississippi State was rewarded for committing to the run, finding holes in the middle of an Alabama front seven that was thinner than ever at linebacker—Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson were injured in last weekend’s win over LSU, exacerbating a depth issue that dates all the way back to the season opener, when Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis went down against Florida State. The Bulldogs racked up a season-high 172 yards on the ground against Alabama and held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game (38:56)—with help from a few boneheaded Alabama penalties that extended drives. Fitzgerald was held below 100 yards on the ground for the first time in his last five games, but his 21 carries kept the Alabama defense on its heels.

But after Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos’s go-ahead 41-yard field goal try clanged off the left upright with just over two minutes to go, Mississippi State stumbled into a quick three-and-out at the absolute worst time, leaving the Crimson Tide with 69 seconds of clock to put together another potential game-winning drive in regulation. Then Hurts hit Ridley and put a lid on the chaos that had threatened to turn the SEC completely on its head, in the process sending a message to the teams standing in the way of a second national title in three years.

How to Watch Alabama vs. Mississippi State: Live Stream, TV Channel, Time

Mississippi State will try to take a nine-game losing streak to Alabama when the Crimson Tide visit for a crucial SEC West matchup.

The Bulldogs need to win and hope for chaos to reach the SEC championship game, but a victory would go a long way in possibly reaching a New Year's Six bowl.

Alabama is on track to reach the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year and are coming off a 24–10 win over LSU.

See how to watch Saturday's game below.

How to Watch

Time: Saturday, Nov. 11, 7 p.m. EST

TV channel: ESPN

Live stream: You can stream the game using the WatchESPN app.

Remaining schedule

Alabama: vs. Mercer (11/18), at Auburn (11/25)

Mississippi State: at Arkansas(11/18), vs. Ole Miss (11/23)

How to Watch LSU vs. Arkansas: Live Stream, TV Channel, Game Time

LSU hosts Arkansas in a matchup between SEC West foes Saturday.

The 6-3 Tigers are coming off a 24-10 loss to No. 2 Alabama last week. Prior to that, they were on a three-game winning streak that featured wins over Florida and Auburn. The LSU offense is dependent on running backs Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams, who have combined for 1,341 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns and 312 receiving yards.

Arkansas is last in the SEC West with a 1-4 conference record. Overall, the Razorbacks are 4-5 and have won consecutive games. After a 38-37 win over Ole Miss, Arkansas picked up a 39-38 win over Coastal Carolina. Over their last five games, the Razorbacks have allowed 216 points, including 52 in a 32-point loss to Auburn.

Last season, LSU knocked off Arkansas 38-10.

How to Watch

Time: Noon EST

TV channel: ESPN

Live stream: WatchESPN

Next Two Games

LSU: at Tennessee (11/18), vs. Texas A&M (11/25)

Arkansas: vs. No. 16 Mississippi State (11/18), vs. Missouri (11/24)

College Football Week 11 Rankings: The Top 5 Heading Into The Weekend

The college football regular season is in its final stretch, and this weekend's slate of games could provide some clarity in the race for the College Football Playoff.

Georgia, the top-ranked team in the country, will face No. 10 Auburn away from home. If the Bulldogs beat Auburn, they'll have a clear shot to the SEC Title Game and a very good chance of making the College Football Playoff.

Alabama is the No. 2 team in the rankings. The Crimson Tide face Mississippi State, ranked No. 16, this weekend on the road.

Meanwhile, No. 3 Notre Dame will face No. 7 Miami (Fla.), and No. 5 Oklahoma is set to face No. 6 TCU. Clemson, ranked No. 4, will take on unranked Florida State.

Here's a complete look at the top 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings entering this weekend.

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. Notre Dame
4. Clemson
5. Oklahoma
6. TCU
7. Miami (Fla.)
8. Wisconsin
9. Washington
10. Auburn

For a look at the complete top 25, click here.

Odds, Lines and Spreads for Key Games in College Football's Week 11

College football's Week 11 features a loaded slate, including three matchups between top ten teams—No. 3 Notre Dame plays at No. 7 Miami, and No. 6 TCU visits No. 5 Oklahoma, and No. 1 Georgia is at No. 10 Auburn.

Here are the moneylines, spreads and over/unders for Week 11's key matchups, via Bovada.

No. 3 Notre Dame at No. 7 Miami

Moneyline: Notre Dame -155, Miami +135

Spread: Notre Dame -3.5

Over/Under: 57

No. 6 TCU at No. 5 Oklahoma

Moneyline: Oklahoma -245, TCU +205

Spread: Oklahoma -6.5

Over/Under: 62

No. 1 Georgia at No. 10 Auburn

Moneyline: Georgia -135, Auburn +115

Spread: Georgia -3

Over/Under: 47

No. 2 Alabama at No. 16 Mississippi State

Moneyline: Alabama -570, Mississippi State +385

Spread: Alabama -14

Over/Under: 51

No. 12 Michigan State at No. 13 Ohio State

Moneyline: Ohio State -750, Michigan State +475

Spread: Ohio State -16

Over/Under: 54

No. 20 Iowa at No. 8 Wisconsin

Moneyline: Wisconsin -500, Iowa +350

Spread: Wisconsin -11.5

Over/Under: 46

No. 15 Oklahoma State at No. 21 Iowa State

Moneyline: Oklahoma State -250, Iowa State +210

Spread: Oklahoma State -7

Over/Under: 61

Florida State at No. 4 Clemson

Moneyline: Clemson -800, Florida State +500

Spread: Clemson -16

Over/Under: 46

Rutgers at No. 14 Penn State

Moneyline: Penn State -31

Spread: Not available

Over/Under: 54

No. 11 USC at Colorado

Moneyline: USC -500, Colorado +350

Spread: USC -13.5

Over/Under: 65

Arkansas at No. 24 LSU

Moneyline: LSU -900, Arkansas +550

Spread: LSU -17

Over/Under: 55

Michigan at Maryland

Moneyline: Michigan -900, Maryland +550

Spread: Michigan -17

Over/Under: 46

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?

Week 11 Picks: Who Will Drop From the Playoff Race?

A few teams will drop from College Football Playoff contention each week from this point until the final rankings are released on Dec. 3, and Week 11 is headlined by three matchups of top-10 teams that can largely be considered elimination games for the loser.

The committee already seems to doubt No. 7 Miami’s résumé, even though the Hurricanes are undefeated; they can hardly afford to lose to No. 3 Notre Dame, as the Irish work to avoid dropping back to the two-loss pack. Either No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU can nearly assure itself a spot in the Big 12 title game with a win in Norman, while the loser will be left to hope the committee would look kindly on a victory in a conference title game rematch. No.1 Georgia is the only team of the group with some apparent margin for error; if the Bulldogs rebounded from a road loss to No. 10 Auburn and beat Alabama in the SEC title game, they would be hard to keep out of the field.

Below, our experts make their picks for Week 11’s biggest games, taking turns defending their selections.

Season-long standings

Chris Johnson: 92–32 (74.2%)
Molly Geary: 89–35 (71.8%)
Andy Staples: 85–39 (68.5%)
Bruce Feldman: 76–39 (66.1%)?
Eric Single: 82–42 (66.1%)
Scooby Axson: 72–38 (65.5%)
Joan Niesen: 76–48 (61.3%)

Washington at Stanford (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Bruce Feldman picks Washington: The Cardinal got blasted by the Huskies last year. It’ll be closer this time, but the hunch here is that Washington is still better than Stanford, which is 10th in the conference in offense and has managed a little over 400 yards combined the past two weeks against defenses nowhere near as tough as the Huskies’.?

Michigan State at Ohio State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX)

Andy Staples picks Ohio State: Silly as it may sound, I picked this based on the weather forecast. It’s supposed to be sunny and cool in Columbus. Rain, sleet or snow and I’d pick the Spartans. In the sun, it’s the Buckeyes.?

Oklahoma State at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Joan Niesen picks Iowa State: My inclination here after the Cyclones betrayed my trust last week was to turn on them, but cooler heads prevail. Matt Campbell’s team has a defense that’s up to the task of slowing Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will score on the Cowboys’ defense.

?Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (12:20 ET, ACC Network)

Eric Single picks Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have fallen off in recent weeks, but don’t brush off how hard it will be for the Hokies to get up for a noon game against an option team the week after having their conference title hopes dashed.?

Georgia at Auburn (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Chris Johnson picks Georgia: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked great (20 of 27, 268 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) against Texas A&M’s porous defense last Saturday. He’ll have a much harder time moving the ball against the Bulldogs.?

?Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Molly Geary picks Wisconsin: The Hawkeyes are certainly a tempting pick coming off their dominant win over Ohio State, but they’ve been a different team on the road, where they've gone 0–2 in Big Ten play with 20 total points. The Badgers won’t underestimate Iowa regardless; they have the defense to remain undefeated.?

USC at Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX)

Scooby Axson picks USC: The Trojans have relied on a powerful running game lately, so don’t expect anything different here against Colorado, whom USC has beaten all 11 times the two teams have played. USC can wrap up the Pac-12 South with a win or a loss from both of the Arizona schools.?

Washington State at Utah (5:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Bruce Feldman picks Utah: The Utes hobble into this one having lost four of their last five. I was tempted to go with the Cougars, but the game is in Salt Lake City, and Washington State has lost its past two road games by a combined 55 points. Cougars quarterback Luke Falk has four touchdowns and five interceptions in three road games this year, compared to 22 TDs and three picks at home. ?

Alabama at Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Chris Johnson picks Alabama: The Crimson Tide’s dwindling linebacker depth is cause for concern long-term, but it won’t matter this weekend in Starkville. Alabama should pick up another comfortable win against a ranked conference opponent after dispatching LSU in Tuscaloosa last week.?

Notre Dame at Miami (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Andy Staples picks Notre Dame: Against an NC State defense that is statistically similar against the run to Miami, the Fighting Irish rolled up 318 rushing yards at 5.9 yards a carry. If something similar to that happens Saturday, Notre Dame is winning.?

TCU at Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, FOX)

Joan Niesen picks Oklahoma: This one won’t be the shootout Bedlam was—TCU has the defense to throw a wrench in the Sooners’ high-flying offense—but Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield will still be able to outscore the Horned Frogs.?

Boise State at Colorado State

Eric Single picks Colorado State: The Broncos have been a completely different team since Mountain West play started, but Rams quarterback Nick Stevens and the nation’s leading receiver Michael Gallup make up one of the best QB-WR combos in the Group of Five. Colorado State is 3–1 in its shiny new stadium this season.?