SEC a Rump Conference Without Bama

If it’s the third weekend of November, it must be Cupcake Saturday in the SEC.

Yep, this is the weekend when SEC teams – instead of playing each other like in all the other conferences – take on overmatched non-Power 5 and often FCS opponents to pad their records and get healthy.

But this year, we decided not to shame the SEC, instead we’ll pity it. Simply put, the once-great conference that dominated college football for nearly a decade is now just Alabama and 13 dwarfs.

Take a look at the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Sure, Alabama is at the top (and deservedly so), but you’ll have to go all the way down to No. 15 to find the next SEC team – Auburn. Meanwhile, there are four Big Ten teams occupying the top eight and four Pac-12 teams in the top 13. Even the woeful Big 12 placed three teams between Alabama and Auburn.

Other than Alabama, every SEC team has at least three losses. And the conference’s legion of apologists (beginning with that four-letter network) can no longer claim that it’s a function of just SEC teams beating each other up. Other than the Crimson Tide’s thrashing of USC in the season opener, no SEC team has beaten a currently ranked nonconference opponent.

The SEC is now a conference of rampant mediocrity, as the first cause of it is coaching turnovers not for the better. While the SEC once boasted future Hall of Fame coaches such as Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier simultaneously, it is now left with the likes of Butch Jones, Will Muschamp and Kirby Smart at some of its marquee programs.

The other reason for the downfall of the SEC is it’s been bereft of quarterback talent for sometime now. Of the five SEC QBs currently starting in the NFL, only Dak Prescott (a 2016 fourth-round pick who has emerged surprisingly thanks to Tony Romo’s injury) is of recent vintage. Basically the SEC has not produced any top-shelf quarterback for at least half a decade following the likes of Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton.

So while Alabama has remained on its lofty perch in the college football pecking order, the rest of the SEC has come crashing down despite its usual abundance of talented recruits. And its scheduling malpractice has now become an issue more than ever before.

The SEC (along with the ACC) has steadfastly refused to play nine conference games as all other Power 5 leagues have moved to do. Most of the teams play up to eight home games and rarely travel out of the SEC footprint. They load up the nonconference portion of the schedule with the usual little sisters of the poor as once again every SEC team was slated to play one FCS opponent this season.

If it weren’t for the hurricane-caused postponement of the LSU-Florida game, we would’ve been treated to eight SEC games featuring a cupcake opponent this Saturday. There are no other conferences that do this as blatantly and consistently – and getting away with it – as the SEC. But now the conference will be paying a price for it.

Most likely there will be no more than two SEC teams in the New Year’s Six bowl lineup this year: Alabama in the playoff and another in the SEC-contracted Sugar Bowl. Whereas it used to overwhelm the bowl season, the SEC (minus Alabama) is now merely an afterthought.

Game of the Week

Oklahoma (-3) at West Virginia, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

The two teams that represent the Big 12’s last best chance at a playoff spot square off in Morgantown, with the winner keeping the conference’s slim hopes alive. Oklahoma will need considerable amount of help even if it wins out to claim the Big 12 title so it must defeat West Virginia and, combined with an Oklahoma State win at TCU, to set up a winner-take-all Bedlam as a last chance to impress the committee.

Also keep an eye on

Florida at LSU (-13.5), 1 p.m. ET, SEC Network

Originally scheduled for the Swamp on Oct. 8, this game was postponed as a precaution for Hurricane Matthew. Both teams had to cancel respective matchups with South Alabama (LSU) and FCS Presbyterian (Florida) to make the makeup happen in Baton Rouge. The Gators must win this game to fend off Tennessee for the SEC East title whereas the Tigers need it to keep their hopes alive for the Sugar Bowl.

Upset special

Washington State at Colorado (-4.5), 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX

The Pac-12’s unlikely division leaders meet in what could be a preview of the conference title game. After stumbling out of the gate with two losses, Washington State is the hottest team in the Pac-12, having won eight straight while averaging 46.6 points per game during the streak. Colorado, on the other hand, has won more conference games this season (six) than its previous five seasons in the Pac-12 combined (five).

Player to watch

Louisville (-14) at Houston, 8 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN

What was at one point considered a gargantuan nonconference matchup featuring a pair of top five teams has badly lost its luster, thanks to two Houston losses and Louisville’s narrow defeat at Clemson. But besides Lamar Jackson, we’ll get to appreciate Houston’s 27-year-old freshman punter Dane Roy, by way of Australia. The former ice cream salesman won a kicking competition in the Australian Football League’s Grand Final (the equivalent of the Super Bowl) and got to spend some time with Ray Guy before earning a scholarship from the Cougars. Roy punted 11 times in Houston’s 30-18 victory over Tulane last week and is averaging 40.2 yards per punt this season.

Making Sense of 1st Committee Rankings

First, a quick message to Washington Huskies fans, from a fellow Pac-12 alum, no less.

R-E-L-A-X.

Just because Washington is ranked behind Texas A&M in the initial College Football Playoff committee rankings, it means nothing. As in, diddly squat.

In some ways it’s entirely predictable that the committee would do something like this, ranking an unbeaten Power 5 conference leader behind a one-loss team. If its rankings totally mimic the two polls, which logically have the four unbeaten Power 5 teams ranked 1 through 4, what will we be talking about this week?

The playoff selection committee is now in its third season. But in case you’re still new at this, we’ll demystify it for you:

1) All rankings before the final rankings are meaningless

Try not to read anything, at all, from the weekly release. It’s a made-for-TV show. It’s designed to drum up interest. And the committee has done more and more outlandish things to stay relevant.

2) Disregard the committee chairman’s convoluted lingos

Jeff Long, the first CFP chair, invented “game control” and used all sorts of fancy jargons to justify the rankings each week. His successor Kirby Hocutt is doing more of the same. But at the end, it’s all garbage. Like in non-criminal jury trials, a unanimous decision isn’t required, and the foreman cannot always explain how each juror reached his or her decision. It’s 12 people voting on paper ballots, plain and simple.

3) The end result will look very different from the first release

If history is our guide, don’t expect more than one or two of these initial top four to be in the playoff field. In 2014, the first top four were Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss. At the end only FSU made the playoff, and the only SEC team that made the field wasn’t any of those three, but Alabama. Ohio State, ranked No. 16 in the first rankings, ended up winning it all.

In 2015, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Alabama were in the top four. Clemson and Alabama did end up meeting for the championship, but they were joined in the playoff by No. 7 Michigan State and No. 15 Oklahoma.

4) The committee does not respect Group of 5 teams

In the two-plus seasons of the CFP standings, no G5 team has ever been ranked higher than No. 15 in the standings. The two G5 teams that claimed the automatic berths in the New Years’ Six bowls were No. 20 (Boise State 2014) and No. 18 (Houston, 2015), respectively.

5) Don’t read too much into the recusal policy

There are five sitting ADs on the committee. And just like any NCAA selection committee, their teams will get preferential treatment despite a recusal policy. Just because that AD isn’t in the room when his team is being discussed doesn’t mean that the other 11 members won’t take care of him. After all, they have to spend considerable amount of time locked up with him in a conference room all season.

If there’s a close vote on the Clemson Tigers, think they were going to tell Dan Radakovich the bad news?

Game of the Week

Alabama (-7.5) at LSU

A rejuvenated LSU team with a healthy Leonard Fournette might pose the biggest challenge for Alabama in its quest to return to the playoff and repeat as national champions. Under interim coach Ed Orgeron the Tigers have won three straight and like ‘Bama had a bye week before the showdown under the lights in Death Valley. If LSU can somehow get some production out of its passing attack this may turn out to be a game.

Also keep an eye on

Nebraska at Ohio State (-17.5)

The Cornhuskers are coming off their first defeat of the season, an overtime loss at Wisconsin, yet still few believe in them (witness the point spread). The Buckeyes are reeling, with a loss to Penn State followed by barely surviving Northwestern at home. Ohio State must right its ship if it wants to return to the playoff after being left out last year. Nebraska, on the other hand, needs this win to keep its hopes of winning the Big Ten West alive.

Upset special

Florida (-4.5) at Arkansas

After dispatching Georgia, the Gators appear to have smooth sailing into the SEC championship game for a second straight year, but they still have some work to do. Arkansas has been disappointing this season, but it still has enough talent to knock off the SEC East leader. A Hogs victory will throw the eastern race into chaos as, gulp, Kentucky may emerge as the unlikely winner of that division.

Player to watch

Utah State at Wyoming (-6)

In his third year at Wyoming, coach Craig Bohl has completely rebuilt the program after being the architect of the current five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. After upsetting Boise State last week, the Cowboys have the inside track to claim the Mountain West Mountain division, if they can win three of their final four regular-season games. A big reason for Wyoming’s renaissance this season is junior running back Brian Hill, who ran for 146 yards in the upset of the Broncos and is second in FBS in rushing yards, behind only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey.

Playoff Is Already Better Than BCS

Is the College Football Playoff better than the dearly-departed Bowl Championship Series?

In a word, hell yes!

Do you hear all the jostling and politicking for a playoff spot by the coaches and athletic directors? No? Because it’s not happening, not yet anyway. That in itself is already a huge improvement over the BCS era.

Ten years ago this week, I launched BCSGuru.com because I was frustrated by the media’s and public’s ignorance of the BCS standings formula and how it worked. Over time, I became an expert at projecting the standings, with an overall accuracy of over 95 percent. I correctly predicted the two teams that would meet in the BCS title game every year until the demise of the BCS after the 2013 season.

In latter part of the BCS era, politicking and jockeying were a necessity because two-thirds of the standings were controlled by the voters, who in fact determined the final matchup every year. The computers served as mere distractions and window dressing, as they proved to have no influence over who got picked for the title game.

The smartest thing the CFP, now in its third year of existence, has done is to ditch the polls. While you may have objections to a dozen people sitting in the room deciding who should make the four-team playoff, this model is infinitely better than what essentially became mob rule in the BCS era.

The CFP committee members won’t meet for another three weeks, which also allows them to see the totality of the season’s picture better when they do get together. That’s also a huge upgrade from the BCS era when the voters started their year with preseason polls and stubbornly stuck to them even when facts on the ground no longer aligned with their preconceived notions.

So the best thing about the CFP is that it renders college football (mostly) politics-free. And in this contentious election season, that’s a not-so-small favor we can all be thankful for.

Game of the Week

Alabama (-13) at Tennessee, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The Third Saturday in October is a rivalry that’s noted for its streaks. After ending a 12-game skid against Florida in The Third Saturday in September, Tennessee hopes to do the same to its nine-game losing streak to Alabama. But this is a much taller order considering that the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide have steamrolled every opposition this season while the Vols are coming off a heartbreaking OT loss to Texas A&M. Tennessee has gone 5-1 and reached its top-10 ranking by rallying from double-digit deficits four times, but don’t expect that to happen against Nick Saban, who’s never lost to the Vols since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

Also keep an eye on

Ohio State (-10.5) at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

By now everyone is expecting the Michigan-Ohio State showdown in late November to decide the Big Ten’s playoff representative, but Wisconsin will have a lot to say about all of that. After hanging close with Michigan in a 14-7 loss, the Badgers represent the only realistic challenge for the Buckeyes before their date with the Wolverines. Wisconsin also most likely will win the Big Ten West, meaning win or lose Saturday, it might get another shot at the Michigan-Ohio State winner in the conference championship game.

Upset special

Nebraska (-3.5) at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2

Even though Nebraska is 5-0 and may challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title, it can ill afford to look past Indiana. Coming off a 38-17 loss at Ohio State, the Hoosiers are a gritty group that can grind it out with anyone. With games against Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks still coming up, the Cornhuskers must handle all their business against underdogs to have any shot at a trip to the Big Ten title game.

Player to watch

West Virginia (-1) at Texas Tech, noon ET, FS1

Pat Mahome II’s namesake father was a 12-year veteran in Major League Baseball as a pitcher, but even he must have been impressed at how much his kid quarterback is throwing for Texas Tech. In last week’s 44-38 loss to Kansas State, the younger Mahomes aired it out 62 times for 504 yards. He leads the nation in passing yards with 2,274, just ahead of his former teammate Davis Webb (now at Cal). To hand West Virginia its first loss of the season, Texas Tech will need Air Mahomes to chuck it around with all his might.

Houston’s Loss Shakes Up Playoff Race

The happiest people about Navy’s upset of Houston – besides the giddy Midshipmen who get an extra school day off – are probably the members of the College Football Playoff selection committee. A potential giant headache has suddenly vanished into thin air.

The Cougars’ defeat eliminated them from the playoff race as well as any possibility of a Group of Five team crashing the four-team party. Louisville also became collateral damage of Houston’s 46-40 loss at Annapolis, as the Cardinals are now robbed of any signature victory on their resume.

With that, the playoff pecking order seems pretty clear now. The Big 12 has virtually eliminated itself from the race, leaving conference champions from the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC vying for the four spots. One other team is also lurking – the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game. With both teams steamrolling toward their Nov. 26 showdown, it’s highly likely that neither will be defeated except in that one game.

So, to recap, this is where the playoff race stands, by conference:

  1. Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska
  2. SEC: Alabama, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida
  3. ACC: Clemson, Louisville, Virginia Tech
  4. Pac-12: Washington
  5. Michigan-Ohio State loser
  6. Big 12: Baylor, West Virginia

For all intents and purposes, these are the only 14 teams still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Houston’s loss has made the selection committee’s job that much easier.

As for the Cougars, not only are they completely out of the playoff picture, they’re in danger of missing a berth in the New Year’s Six bowl game. Remember, the Group of Five automatic entry is guaranteed only to the highest-ranked G5 conference champion, and right now Houston needs Navy to lose twice just to win its division.

Houston’s demise makes Boise State the frontrunner for that G5 automatic berth as the Broncos are 5-0, with a pair of victories over Pac-12 teams. Western Michigan would be right behind Boise, as those Broncos are 6-0 with a pair of victories over Big Ten teams.

Game of the Week

Texas A&M 45, Tennessee 38 (OT): Butch Jones’ Vols finally ran out of miracles after trailing big and then rallying for a third straight game. Tennessee came back from 21- and 17-point deficits to beat Florida and Georgia and was down 21 to the Aggies and looked out of it. But the Vols got a late fumble that went for a touchback to mount a drive to tie and survived regulation when A&M missed its game-winning field goal attempt. But they couldn’t carry on in overtime and must move on fast as Alabama is next.

Player of the Week

JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC: Forget his five catches for a game-high 113 yards, the best play was the yards that Smith-Schuster didn’t get after catching a pass for 25 yards with 1:15 remaining that allowed USC to seal its 21-17 victory over Colorado. JuJu could’ve walked into the end zone for a touchdown to put the Trojans up by 10, but that would’ve allowed the Buffs to get the ball back – and even if it’s unlikely – to have a chance to get back in the game. It was both an unselfish and smart play and deserve our highest praise.

The Weak I

A day after the 100-year anniversary of Georgia Tech’s 222-0 pasting of Cumberland, a game of equal absurdity took place in Michigan’s 78-0 rout of Rutgers. This is supposed to be a Big Ten conference matchup, but it was a mismatch more resembling of an FCS “body bag” blowout. Michigan outgained Rutgers in yards, 600-39, with the Knights getting 29 of those in the final two drives against the Wolverines’ third- and fourth-stringers. Or put it this way, Michigan had twice as many points as Rutgers had yards.

The Weak II

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey now has to scramble to figure out how he may reschedule the LSU-Florida game that was supposed to be played Saturday in the Swamp. But in a true display of master statecraft, outgoing Florida AD Jeremy Foley outmaneuvered Sankey to force a postponement that now looks like an outright cancellation, which serves to Florida’s advantage. There’s no easy solution to get the game made up, and likely Sankey will just have to pray that this unplayed game won’t affect SEC conference races.

The rankings

1. Alabama, 2. Michigan, 3. Ohio State, 4. Clemson, 5. Washington, 6. Texas A&M, 7. Louisville, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Nebraska, 10. Boise State, 11. Baylor, 12. Tennessee, 13. Virginia Tech, 14. West Virginia, 15. Florida State.

Huskies and Ducks Ships Passing at Night

Once upon a time, the Washington Huskies and Oregon Ducks had one of the best rivalries in college football. It was the most anticipated matchup of the year in the Pacific Northwest, more than the Apple Cup or the Civil War.

All that changed in the last decade as Oregon ascended to a national power while Washington languished as a Pac-10/12 also-ran. The Ducks have won 12 straight in the series, dating back to 2004.

On Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX), however, Washington is ready to flip the script. Maybe for a good while.

The Huskies will invade Autzen Stadium ranked No. 5 (in the AP poll) and as the only remaining unbeaten team in the Pac-12. Fresh off a walloping of Stanford on national TV and they’re now the conference’s best (maybe the only) positioned team to contest for a College Football Playoff spot.

They’ll find an Oregon team in complete disarray, with speculations swirling about the job security of coach Mark Helfrich, who only two years ago took the Ducks to the inaugural CFP title game. But this season the Ducks are 2-3, having been drubbed back-to-back by Colorado and Washington State and giving up 92 points in those two losses.

There might not be a quick short-term fix for Oregon’s sudden decline. The program has had some bright moments, notably under Rich Brooks in the ’90s, Mike Bellotti in the early 2000s and of course, the current run started by Chip Kelly in 2009. But does Oregon have what it takes to sustain success?

Perhaps not. Even in the best of times, Oregon almost never reeled in top talent. Neither Kelly nor Helfrich ever had a top 10 recruiting class. In the past five years, Oregon’s recruiting classes ranked somewhere between 16th and 28th. The Ducks have neglected defense for the most part – and hiring Brady Hoke as the new defensive coordinator this past offseason has failed to arrest the continued defensive slide.

From 2009 to 2014, when the Ducks played for the national title twice (and lost both times), they gave up an average of around 20-24 points per game. That number went up alarmingly last year to an average of 38 and this year they’re at 36 points per through five games.

This is exactly the same reason why Washington has suddenly become a national power again.

While most remember Chris Petersen’s Boise State teams for the statue-of-liberty type of trick plays, his Broncos were able to compete with college football’s big boys even with lesser talent because they wouldn’t get pushed around. When he came to Washington, he brought the same philosophy and now he can do it with better players.

While Washington gave up an average of 28 points per game under Steve Sarkisian from 2009-13, it has become much stingier under Petersen. The Huskies allowed just 19 points per game in 2015 and only 13 per this year. Against Stanford last week, Washington absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in a 44-6 rout.

As a result, the Huskies may very well return to their previous status as the bully on the block. Under the legendary Don James, Washington was a perennial powerhouse, winning six Pac-10 titles, four Rose Bowls and shared the 1991 national championship with Miami. In his 18 seasons in Seattle, James was 15-3 against Oregon.

Washington is poised to end its current 12-game losing streak against the Ducks and start a new era of dominance. This Saturday’s game has the feel of two ships passing each other at night, heading in opposite directions.

Game of the Week

Tennessee at Texas A&M (-7), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Will the cardiac kids of Tennessee finally run out of miracles? After absolutely stealing one from Between the Hedges against Georgia last week, the Vols must take on an SEC foe equally apt at second-half comebacks. This unexpected top 10 showdown between two undefeated teams may very well shake up SEC races in both divisions.

Also keep an eye on

Alabama (-14) at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Nearly every year in the Nick Saban era, the Crimson Tide would lose an SEC game unexpectedly, whether it’s Johnny Football (2012), Kick Six (2013) or back-to-back to Ole Miss (2014-15). The visit to Fayetteville just might be Alabama’s trap game of the year as it will face Tennessee and Texas A&M in the next two weeks. Bret Bielema is in his fourth season at the helm of the Hogs and must prove he can truly compete in the SEC.

Upset special

Texas vs. Oklahoma (-10.5) at Dallas, noon ET, FS1

Charlie Strong’s seat is red hot after Texas’ back-to-back losses to Cal and Oklahoma State, and as a quick fix he has taken back defensive calls from DC Vance Bedford. With their backs against the wall, the Longhorns just might show up and play their best game of the year as they did last season against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry showdown.

Player to watch

Washington State at Stanford (-7.5), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

For the second year in a row, the Cougars opened the season 2-2, losing the season opener to an FCS team. But just like last year, Washington State didn’t go into the tank, but got better and quickly, thanks to its fearless junior quarterback Luke Falk. Through four games, Falk is averaging over 370 passing yards per game with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Last year, Falk aired it out 61 times for 354 yards in a 30-28 loss to Stanford when WSU missed a field goal at the gun. He is posed to to end Wazzu’s eight-game losing streak to the Cardinal.

What’s the Point of Damn Polls?

One of the worst aspects of the 16-year BCS era was the pre-eminence of the polls, especially in the latter eight years, when the polls accounted for two-thirds of the formula and essentially decided who’d play for the BCS title every year.

The best thing about the Playoff era just might be the obsolescence of the polls. And considering how the polls have been hijacked by one particular conference, that is a welcome change.

Consider the latest AP poll. Is there any justification that eight – EIGHT! – SEC teams are ranked in the top 25? This after the SEC went 6-6 against nonconference opponents in Week 1 and has yet to defeat a Power 5 opponent currently ranked in the top 25?

Even after near escapes at home against Appalachian State and Nicholls State, Tennessee and Georgia are still ranked 12th and 14th, respectively. With wins over UMass and North Texas, Florida is deemed good enough to crack the top 20. Ole Miss, despite two losses, is still ranked.

The residual effect of such rankings is that, since the SEC is about to begin conference play, it guarantees that SEC teams will continue to be disproportionally represented in the polls – as most of the conference matchups will pit “ranked teams” against each other. And based on the performance of its teams in the season’s first three weeks, there’s no justification that more than half of SEC’s 14 teams should be ranked.

Thankfully in the Playoff era, the selection committee is free to dispense with any influence from the polls. In the two years so far it has largely done that, fashioning its own rankings without any preconceived bias from the very flawed voting process.

The problem with the polls – the coaches poll is even worse than the AP, but I digress – is that their voters are now greatly swayed by a narrative presented by ESPN and its affiliates, which includes the SEC Network. ESPN has a fiduciary duty to pump up the SEC because of its business relationship, and most writers and coaches (and their proxies) for the most part eat up the propaganda presented by the “Worldwide Leader” as if it’s just plain information.

The lack of effort and independent thought by by the voters are astounding. How else do you explain the following in this week’s AP poll:

  • Alabama is overwhelmingly ranked ahead of Louisville, even though the Tide barely got by Ole Miss, a team that was beaten more soundly by Florida State, which was routed by Louisville
  • Tennessee is ranked one spot in front of Miami, which routed Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., while the Vols needed OT to beat the Mountaineers at home
  • Texas is one spot ahead of San Diego State, which is unbeaten and beat Cal whereas the Longhorns lost to the Golden Bears
  • Ole Miss and Oklahoma are still ranked even though both are 1-2

No need to answer that. It’s a rhetorical question anyway. Trying to make sense of these polls is a waste of time. Fortunately, they no longer have a hand in deciding the national championship.

Game of the Week

Wisconsin at Michigan State (-6), noon ET, BTN

Both Wisconsin and Michigan State are unbeaten, with wins over LSU and Notre Dame, respectively. Yet this game is relegated to the noon window on BTN, instead of on ABC later in the day (you can thank Jim Harbaugh for that, as Michigan somehow ended up as the 3:30 p.m. ABC telecast). Mark Dantonio will take this as a personal affront, but he had better find a way to solve new Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook, who’ll be making his first career start.

Also keep an eye on

Stanford (-3) at UCLA, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

UCLA has been touted as an emerging power ever since Jim Mora was hired as coach five years ago. Yet every Bruins season in his tenure has ended in disappointment. UCLA made the Pac-12 title game in his first season but has failed to win the South Division since. He has also never beaten Stanford in five tries, losing by double digits each time except in the 2012 conference title game.

Upset special

LSU (-3.5) at Auburn, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN

Les Miles is very much back on the hot seat a year after he was nearly fired. The Bayou Tigers are off to a shaky start this season, having lost to Wisconsin and struggled against Mississippi State, thanks to subpar quarterback play once again. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is likewise in trouble and he may need an upset of LSU to fend off the mob that’s calling for his job three years after he led War Eagle to the 2013 BCS title game.

Player to watch

Penn State at Michigan (-18.5), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Only one primarily defensive player has ever won the Heisman Trophy – Charles Woodson in 1997, beating out the likes of Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf and Randy Moss. His alma mater might very well come up the next one in Jabrill Peppers, a former defensive back converted into linebacker who can do it all. Last week, he nearly single-handedly brought Michigan back from an early deficit against Colorado, punctuating his performance with a punt return for a touchdown. Expect more of the same this week against Penn State.

Big 12 Has a Houston Problem

It looks like Houston will be the Big 12’s best bet for a spot in the 2016 College Football Playoff.

Just three weeks into the season, it appears all but certain that the conference will be missing out on the four-team playoff for the second time in three years (since expansion candidate Houston is still technically in the American Athletic Conference). The Big 12’s last best hope died in Strawberry Canyon late Saturday night as Texas was buried under an avalanche of half-a-hundy Cal points.

There are only two unbeaten teams left in the Big 12 – untested West Virginia and tarnished Baylor. The conference so far this season is 2-10 against teams from Power 5 conferences, the American and the MAC. In the latest AP poll, only Baylor (No. 16) is in the top 20, but nowhere near sniffing the playoff.

All of this makes Houston that much more attractive as an expansion candidate. After beating Oklahoma in the season opener, the Cougars rallied to defeat Cincinnati, 40-16, the other favorite to land a spot in the Big 12 expansion game. Houston also has a Nov. 17 date with Louisville, which might be a contest pitting two top 5 teams with a playoff berth on the line.

Cincinnati missed its best chance to make a case for inclusion in the Big 12 by blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Houston. The rest of its schedule doesn’t move the needle much, except for a Nov. 5 showdown against BYU in a game pitting the two best expansion candidates after Houston. It might even be viewed as a play-in game of sorts.

BYU, meanwhile, lost another close game to a Pac-12 foe, this time 17-14 against UCLA a week after losing 20-19 to Utah. The Cougars visit Morgantown next week and the Big 12 will get a good chance to evaluate them. BYU also still has games remaining against Power 5 teams Michigan State and Mississippi State, so there are opportunities to score style points.

But for now the absurd expansion show is pretty much all Big 12 has going for it the rest of the season. After the third weekend of September it’s already played itself out of playoff contention – there are no more games against Power 5 opponents left and no conference title game to provide a “13th data point” as the selection committee likes to reference.

It’s pretty safe to say that, Houston, you don’t have a problem. Your membership invitation is in the mail and please sign and return, pronto!

Irish Famine: Notre Dame also has played itself out of playoff contention. After losses to Texas and Michigan State in their first three games, all the Irish have to look forward to is nine meaningless games and at-best an outside shot at a New Year’s Six bowl game.

This is what Notre Dame bargained for when it opted to remain independent in the age of power conferences. The school signed a 10-year extension with NBC through the 2025 season to televise its home football games at $15 million per season, but that number is already dwarfed by new deals struck by Power 5 conferences. Members of the Big Ten and SEC are expected to collect north of $40 million each annually beginning this season.

Without a conference affiliation, the Irish have little to play for the rest of the season as its remaining schedule is dotted with low-wattage ACC games and a pair against the service academies. Other than an Oct. 15 date against Stanford in which Notre Dame may play spoiler to the Cardinal’s playoff hopes, don’t expect much more ink spilled on or eyeballs tuned to the Irish the rest of the season.

Game of the Week

Alabama 48, Ole Miss 43: The Rebels had beaten the Tide in each of the last two seasons and seemed headed for a third straight victory after taking a 24-3 early lead. But just as they did against Florida State in the season opener, they fell apart soon after. Ole Miss did rally late to make a game of it, and in the process exposed some glaring weaknesses of the still top-ranked Tide.

Player of the Week

Lamar Jackson, Louisville: Orchestrating the Cardinals’ sensational destruction of Florida State, Jackson announced himself as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner by throwing for 216 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 146 and scoring four more TDs. The Louisville QB spearheaded an attack that shredded the then-No. 2 Seminoles with 530 yards on offense.

The Weak

First, it was Cal running back Vic Enwere, in what seems to be a weekly occurrence in college football now, casually dropping the football before he crossed the goal line late in Cal’s 50-43 victory over Texas. (And don’t call it a potential game-clinching TD, because the Bears would’ve been better off if he had just gotten a first down and not scored.)

But then, the Big 12 officiating crew added to the farce first by failing to notice that Enwere did not cross the goal line with the ball, and then compounding the error by claiming that there was no “immediate recovery” of the fumble, when Texas clearly possessed the ball before the whistle was blown. The Longhorns should’ve had possession at their own 20 with 1:20 to play with a chance to tie/win the game.

Our Rankings

1. Louisville, 2. Ohio State, 3. Alabama, 4. Houston, 5. Stanford, 6. Michigan, 7. Washington, 8. Michigan State, 9. Clemson, 10. Texas A&M, 11. Wisconsin, 12. Florida State, 13. LSU, 14. Nebraska, 15. Miami.