NCAA Football

Ohio State Football: Are Buckeyes Overlooking Illinois for Michigan State?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Illinois, Illinois, Illinois.

That's the message that Urban Meyer is trying to deliver to his team this week, a reminder that it's the Fighting Illini who are next up on Ohio State's schedule. But while the Buckeyes head coach attempts to keep his team focused on its next opponent, even he knows what's waiting around the corner for Ohio State.

"I know there's a big one coming up," Meyer said of the Buckeyes' highly touted Nov. 8 matchup with Michigan State. "Our players know it. Of course they know that's coming."

And why wouldn't they? Ever since the Spartans beat Ohio State in last season's Big Ten Championship Game, all roads on the Buckeyes' 2014 schedule seemed to lead to the second week of November and an inevitable high-stakes rematch between the two teams.

Sept. 6 seemed to threaten that notion, with Ohio State losing to Virginia Tech and Michigan State failing in its trip to Oregon to take on the Ducks. But since that date, neither the Buckeyes nor Spartans have suffered an additional defeat, putting next Saturday's matchup back on track.

Of course that's easy to say for Michigan State, who currently finds itself enjoying a bye week after reeling off six wins in its past six games. Ohio State, meanwhile, still has those pesky Illini to deal with, although Meyer insists that they present more challenge than distraction.

"If they're a really bad team or on videotape they're awful, you've got to be creative, and I've done that where we didn't even show film. You just kind of chew them out or something like that and coach them a little harder," Meyer said. "This returner put it to us last year. The issue is not talent with Illinois. They have talent and you can see them on videotape."

Technically, Meyer's right. A year ago, Illini kick returner V'Angelo Bentley gained 82 yards on three punt returns, including a 67-yard take-back for a touchdown in what was ultimately a 60-35 Buckeyes victory.

But a kick returner on a team Ohio State beat by 25 points a season ago? That's what Meyer's trying to get the attention of his team with? Maybe the third-year Buckeyes coach is legitimately concerned with Bentley, but it also seems like he may be grasping at the straws a bit in an attempt to prevent his team from looking ahead to the Spartans.

"Illinois is much improved from a year ago," Meyer insisted. "There will be no overlooking anyone."

It also doesn't hurt Meyer's cause that after rattling off four straight blowouts after their defeat at the hands of the Hokies, this Buckeyes are coming off of one of their less impressive outings of the season. Compiling just 74 passing yards and surrendering a 17-point second-half lead, it took two overtimes for Ohio State to get past Penn State, with quarterback J.T. Barrett spraining his MCL in the process.

Barrett insists that it would take "something drastic" to prevent him from taking on the Illini, but that doesn't change the fact that the last time he took the field, neither he nor the Buckeyes were at their best. Meyer is using that as a reminder to his team that it still has work to do, as Ohio State hardly looked like a team ready to take on Michigan State last Saturday.

"We didn't play very good," Meyer said of the Buckeyes' trip to Happy Valley. "There's some positions and some players that didn't play very good that we have to get fixed."

Chief among those positions that struggled against the Nittany Lions is the Ohio State offensive line, which surrendered three sacks and hardly provided consistent protection against a talented Nittany Lions front seven. Illinois isn't quite as impressive up front, but with Shilique Calhoun and the Spartans looming, this weekend will be the Buckeyes' last opportunity to find their footing before heading to East Lansing.

"A lot of guys thought we were going to go in and dominate that [Penn State] game and that was kind of humbling," said Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker. "We're not world-beaters. We're not as good as we need to be. We're not where we need to be at."

But if Illinois' talent and the Buckeyes' performance against Penn State aren't enough for Meyer to keep his team focused, Ohio State can also take a look at the Illini's most recent outing. Facing a Minnesota team that was on pace to compete for the Big Ten West title, Illinois snapped a three-game losing streak with a 28-24 win over the Golden Gophers in an effort that caught the attention of Decker.

"They're coming in with an awful lot of momentum," Decker said of the Illini.

And if that doesn't work, Meyer still has that Michigan State game up his sleeve. Because without a win over Illinois, that game loses much of its meaning for an Ohio State squad trying to fight its way up from the No. 16 spot in the inaugural rankings for the College Football Playoff.

"This is a big one as well," Meyer insisted of Ohio State's upcoming game. "That one loses a little luster if we don't take care of business Saturday."

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Florida vs. Georgia: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

Florida–Georgia week has a different feel to it this time around, as the No. 11 Bulldogs enter the neutral site with a serious advantage over the unranked Gators Saturday.

In a series defined by streaks, Mark Richt's team is beginning to carve out a serious run of its own against the rival Gators, especially since Will Muschamp took over as the lead man before the 2011 season.

Florida rests at just .500 currently and does little right on both sides of the football whereas Georgia has only picked up steam in recent weeks as an SEC contender and sleeper for the inaugural College Football Playoff, despite the absence of Heisman contender Todd Gurley.

Then again, these two bitter rivals put on close contests regularly. Georgia has title hopes, while Florida wants to play spoiler. It should go without saying that this classic annual bout is worth the time investment.

 

Riding the Momentum

How lopsided does this matchup look on paper?

Florida enters after its worst performance to date, a 42-13 loss to the Missouri Tigers—the same team Georgia had dismantled 34-0 the week prior.

Believe it or not, Georgia has done nothing short of improve in each of the past six weeks after a scare against Tennessee at the end of September. With Gurley out of the picture, the Bulldogs have turned to freshman tailback Nick Chubb, who now has 569 yards and five touchdowns on a 5.7 yards per carry average.

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports put it best:

Who needs Gurley when Chubb has played at such a high level, and the Bulldogs defense has forced nine turnovers over the course of its last two games? Richt does hint that Gurley's absence may have a hand in the team's noteworthy improvement, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com):

This team was improving whether Todd played or not. We were getting better defensively. We were getting better offensively. A lot of people say Todd not being there gave the team incentive to play harder. There may be some truth to that. They love Todd. They wanted to honor him, especially when he missed some games. They wanted to give him a little sign like, `Hey, we're with you.' But we were getting better regardless.

As hinted, momentum is not really a thing for the Gators. The quarterback issue is quite real for Muschamp's team, as Jeff Driskel went 7-of-19 for 50 yards and two interceptions last week while the team managed 2.8 yards per carry. 

One team needs a jaw-dropping turnaround, while the other needs to ride the wave. Which scenario will actually happen is not so easy to discern.

 

Complacency and History

To be completely fair to Florida, the blueprint for a win Saturday is quite apparent: Make Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason take to the air.

Mason has yet to have the pressure of a win on his shoulders thanks to the prowess of the Georgia run game. He has completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 1,022 yards and 10 touchdowns to three interceptions, but again, he has yet to be put in that situation.

Look at last year, when complacency seemed to strike the Bulldogs in this same game. After getting to a 20-0 lead, Georgia got sloppy, turned the ball over a few times and allowed the Gators to hang around and almost pull off the upset, were it not for a lengthy drive near the end of the game.

Should that same trait rear its head again, the Gators are ready to capitalize, if comments from offensive tackle D.J. Humphries are any indication, per Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports.com: "Get a 'W,' at all costs. We definitely need to get back to our run game on the ground and just be physical, out-physical some guys. It's Florida-Georgia. It's time to hit somebody in the mouth."

For Georgia, a team with CFP aspirations and a date against No. 3 Auburn in two weeks, the letdown potential is alive and well—especially in a rivalry game. 

 

When: Saturday, November 1, 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida

Television: CBS

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 50
  • Spread: Georgia (-13)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

Georgia is about to receive Florida's best performance of the season. 

How the Bulldogs handle it will say plenty about their CFP resume.

For every argument about common opponents, there is a counter; Florida also beat Tennessee this year. In fact, the Gators are two weeks removed from playing LSU tough in a three-point loss.

As long as the Bulldogs apply the lessons learned from last year and control the clock with Chubb on the ground, the team will be able to come out on top. A top-15 rushing attack and a top-20 defense has a way of doing that in the SEC, especially when it has not turned the ball over in a full eight quarters of play recently.

Expect Georgia to make it four in a row.

Prediction: Georgia 35, Florida 28

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Notre Dame vs. Navy: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

A rested, disappointed No. 10 Notre Dame Fighting Irish team hits the road to take on a surging Navy Midshipmen squad Saturday in one of college football's oldest rivalries.

Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish enter the encounter off a bye, but before that, they were upended by the Florida State Seminoles, meaning their inaugural College Football Playoff hopes reside on not suffering a letdown against an opponent they have struggled with over the course of the past few seasons. 

Injuries and sloppy play have derailed what was supposed to be a superb season for the Midshipmen, but the team enters Saturday healthy and on a two-game win streak with a triple-option attack that gives most opponents fits.

While only the biggest game of the year for one team, the encounter's impact on the rest of the nation cannot be understated.

 

Options, Options, Options

If fans are unaware, Navy gives any and all defenses fits with a triple option that allows the offense to lead the nation in rushing at 352.3 yards per game.

It is certainly not a traditional attack, either, as even Kelly seems adamant after several meetings with Navy—including an ugly 35-17 loss in 2010—that the staff continues to make nuanced changes that give defenses problems.

"I think that that's the secret to their success in that they evolve enough offensively that slight tweaks make it difficult to defend with certainty, and then their in-game adjustments are outstanding," Kelly said, per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com.

While the Notre Dame defense does rank in the top 15 with an average of 19.1 points allowed per game, the unit's last two outings have been less than encouraging. Against the Seminoles, the unit allowed 323 total yards and 31 points.

Before that, the North Carolina Tar Heels ran up 516 total yards despite two turnovers in a near-upset.

Keep in mind that Notre Dame may also be susceptible to overlooking the Midshipmen, with an encounter against No. 14 Arizona State on the slate for next week. No. 25 Louisville awaits two games later.

Limiting turnovers by quarterback Everett Golson is one thing. Having the discipline to pay attention to the Midshipmen and ability to stop a unique offense after a few disappointing weeks is another thing entirely.

 

Turnovers Not an Option

For Navy, the recipe for an upset is simple—execute the game plan to perfection and do not turn the ball over.

Alright, perhaps that is not so simple.

Especially for these Midshipmen, an offense that simply cannot stop turning the ball over. So far, quarterback Keenan Reynolds' offense has given the pigskin up 13 times, and while it has not ruined the team in each game, it most certainly will against Notre Dame.

Speaking of Reynolds, the junior has 518 yards and a pair of touchdowns and interceptions through the air, but he leads the team in rushing. The list of rushers is quite impressive when they do not turn the ball over:

Kelly is primarily concerned about Reynolds, though, as one can glean from comments recorded by Angelo Di Carlo of WNDU:

The avenue to success for Navy is there, but it is one that will see a serious roadblock laid out if the team continues to struggle with turnovers.

 

When: Saturday, November 1, 8 p.m. ET

Where: FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland

Television: CBS

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 55.5
  • Spread: Notre Dame (-14)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

What really swings this one in Notre Dame's favor, outside of an obvious advantage in the talent department, is the fact the team has had extra time to prepare for the Navy offense thanks to the bye week.

So while many will point out that Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has not dealt with the triple option for about a decade, it becomes somewhat of a moot point when he has had so long to prepare.

Navy ranks outside of the top 75 in points allowed per game for a reason. As long as VanGorder's defense can get off the field and let Golson and his offense go to work consistently, Notre Dame will have no problems pulling away.

Prediction: Fighting Irish 35, Midshipmen 20

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Auburn vs. Ole Miss: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

A war of wills will rule a Saturday encounter that amounts to an elimination game between the No. 3 Auburn Tigers and No. 4 Ole Miss Rebels.

Both SEC West powers have stumbled over hurdles over the course of the past few weeks, but both still have the inaugural College Football Playoff in sight despite sitting behind No. 1 Mississippi State in the conference. 

Auburn, of course, touts one of the nation's best offenses behind the genius of coach Gus Malzahn. Hugh Freeze's team remains a defensive powerhouse that has humbled teams such as Alabama and Texas A&M this season.

Cliche? Sure, but something has to give in a matchup that has ridden the ebbs and flows of importance as both teams have been up and down. Now that it is here, though, no contest is more important for either program.

 

Impose Thy Will

The Tigers butter their bread on the offensive side of things, primarily on the ground, as the team ranks No. 10 in the nation with an average of 281.0 rushing yards per game.

Last week's win over the South Carolina Gamecocks speaks well to this notion. Auburn totaled 395 total yards on the ground along with five scores for an average of 8.4 yards per rush. Lead back Cameron Artis-Payne had 167 and a score on his own, a sign that he will be used more than ever after Malzahn switched things up after the bye.

An illustration by Auburn Gold Mine puts this best:

For an elite ground attack to fend off an upset, though, it must perform well against the nation's No. 1 overall defense. The Rebels surrender just 10.5 points per game.

In a 23-17 upset of Alabama, the Crimson Tide managed a 6-of-16 mark on third downs and just 168 rushing yards on 3.8 yards per carry. A 35-20 upset over Texas A&M yielded similar results, with the Aggies going 7-of-18 on third downs and getting just 54 rushing yards on a 1.5 yards-per-attempt average.

On a week-to-week basis, Auburn has never truly had much issue moving the football while the Ole Miss defense has never truly faltered. It makes for an unpredictable encounter Saturday as a war of contrasting, consistent styles typically tends to do.

 

Comeback Story

At face value, this is a heavyweight bout that is one of the most important of the season.

Then again, both teams have struggled mightily in recent weeks.

Auburn was turned away against the Bulldogs on October 11. Given the prowess of quarterback Dak Prescott and Co., it truly was a forgivable loss. But then Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and his team went out last week and hardly got past the aforementioned Gamecocks.

The defense was a particularly weak point for the Tigers, as it allowed 416 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air.

Meanwhile, a loss to LSU in Death Valley, 10-7, is even more concerning for the Rebels. Quarterback Bo Wallace, despite all of the good done this year, reaffirmed questions about his turnover traits with a critical late interception.

More importantly, the Tigers brutalized the normally elite defense on the ground for 264 yards on a 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Should that be a sign of things to come, the Rebels are in trouble come Saturday.

"We still could control everything we want with the schedule that lies ahead," said Freeze, per The Clarion-Ledger's Hugh Kellenberger. "We're going to have to play really good football. They're sore and down, and they're disappointed. Hopefully, we'll respond in the correct way."

A pair of title contenders have been tested thoroughly in the worst of ways over the course of the past few weeks. A failure to properly recover and patch holes will prove the sign of a pretender, not a contender. 

 

When: Saturday, November 1, 7 p.m. ET

Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at Hollingsworth Field, Oxford, Mississippi

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 50.5
  • Spread: Ole Miss (-3)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

If Auburn stays committed to the rush and the defense can keep Wallace under pressure using the blueprint recently crafted by LSU, the Tigers certainly have what it takes to pull off an upset Saturday. 

The problem with Ole Miss is that the team is comfortable plodding at a slower pace and using great defense to win games. That works when the defense holds, but it is hard to see it doing so against the potent Auburn rushing attack.

Forced to the air, the Rebels do not have enough offensive firepower to play from behind well. Add in the propensity for mistakes from Wallace, and his team—new to the stage as a contender—becomes a difficult horse to back against a team with title-game experience.

It will be close, but Auburn's offense has the legs to win.

Prediction: Tigers 28, Rebels 24

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Stanford vs. Oregon: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

While not as illustrious at face value as showdowns of the past few years, few games this season are more important than Saturday's showdown between the Stanford Cardinal and No. 5 Oregon Ducks.

In each of the past two seasons, David Shaw's team has upended Marcus Mariota and the Ducks, ruining national championship aspirations in the process.

One problem—this year, the Cardinal are in a tailspin, having already lost three games and resorting to tactics seemingly outside the roster's comfort zone in an effort to right the ship. Meanwhile, outside of a hiccup against Arizona, Mariota's team has been as explosive as ever and is in a strong position to contend for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It may not be as attractive as in years past, but Saturday's rivalry showdown is ripe with long-term implications.

 

Old Meets New

The same old Ducks offense has mostly run roughshod on the competition this season, while Mariota, once again a Heisman contender, has looked strong in the process.

Mariota's completion percentage has never fallen below 60 percent in a game this season, and just last week was his first interception, which seems like nothing compared to his 2,283 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Then again, this sort of efficiency is rather par for the course for Mariota, as Dane Brugler of CBS Sports illustrates:

For Shaw, he can only dream of an offense that produces in such a manner this season.

In fact, he elected to attempt to make that dream a reality last week against Oregon State by scrapping his traditional run-first approach and adhering to the spread-it-out attacks widely used in the conference.

The jarring turn of events in a season-saving effort actually worked, too. Quarterback Kevin Hogan threw for 277 yards and a pair of scores, the team rushed for 151 yards and two more scores and the unit managed 438 total yards in the 38-14 win.

Shaw told the media, per The Associated Press, via FoxSports.com, that his staff is willing to bend to cater to what the roster does best.

We just have to do whatever our guys can do. If we can get like we did last year and get to our big personnel to be able to run the ball efficiently, hey, that's great, we can do that. If we have to spread it out and run and throw and move the football, hey, we have to do that. Nothing is off limits to us.

This new approach gets its first big test Saturday against an Oregon defense that is shaky at times and allows an average of 25.9 points per game. In theory, the Ducks will be ready for the attack thanks to other conference matchups, but they also have to prepare for a mix of two styles, one old, one new.

 

Running From the Past

At some point, most are right to wonder if this is just a mental thing for Mariota and the Ducks.

Stanford is the one team from the conference Mariota has never been able to defeat. The Cardinal defense has rendered him helpless, as he completes just 57.7 percent of his passes and has six sacks over the course of his meets with the team.

In 2012, the Ducks were well on the way to a national title game at 10-0 before a 17-14 home loss to Stanford. Last season was much of the same—8-0, title in sight, the Ducks hit the road and were turned away, 26-20.

Really, though, it is not mental at all—it is all about the rush.

Mariota has struggled because he has had to do it all on his own against the Cardinal. Back in 2012, Oregon rushed for 198 total yards, but 77 of them came on a run from the signal-caller himself. Last year, the Ducks managed a per-carry average of 2.6 thanks to 24 totes for 62 yards.

Led by running back Royce Freeman (748 yards, 13 touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry), the Oregon backfield will need to find success if the Ducks are to break an alarming trend.

 

When: Saturday, November 1, 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon

Television: Fox

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 54.5
  • Spread: Oregon (-7.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

As encouraging as the Cardinal looked last week in an effort to turn things around, the team is simply not as strong as the past iterations that have given Mariota and Co. trouble. 

That is not to say the Stanford defense will not get stops—it certainly can. But as NFL.com's Bryan Fischer points out, the unit may be without two of its top leaders:

That is an issue in itself, but keep in mind that the Oregon offense has already had a serious test this year against an elite defense in a 46-27 win over Michigan State back in September. There, the Ducks stood tall on the ground with 173 total rushing yards and three scores on a 4.3 per-carry average. 

If that game is any indication, this iteration of the Oregon offense is primed for an encounter with Stanford. As the game wears on, the Ducks will run away with this one at home. 

Prediction: Ducks 40, Cardinal 28

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Stanford vs. Oregon: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

While not as illustrious at face value as showdowns of the past few years, few games this season are more important than Saturday's showdown between the Stanford Cardinal and No. 5 Oregon Ducks...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Top Pac-12 Football Storylines Heading into November

For as thrilling as the Pac-12 has been so far in 2014, much of what we anticipated happening back in August has played out to form, including Marcus Mariota as a Heisman Trophy candidate, the Pac-12 South as one of the deepest divisions in the country and outstanding quarterback play from almost every team.

Some of the preseason storylines have been wiped off the board as well, such as Sean Mannion playing his way into elite status, the UCLA Bruins becoming national contenders and the continuing maturation of Kevin Hogan at Stanford.

Finally, brand-new narratives have developed over the past couple months that will provide us with many great chapters of football in November and on into the future as well.

Let's take a look at some of the most captivating storylines as we reach the home stretch of the Pac-12 football season.

 

All stats via CFBStats.com.

Begin Slideshow

Top Pac-12 Football Storylines Heading into November

For as thrilling as the Pac-12 has been so far in 2014, much of what we anticipated happening back in August has played out to form, including Marcus Mariota as a Heisman Trophy candidate, ...

Begin Slideshow

College Football Playoff 2014: 1st Poll Highlights Schedule-Strength Importance

Upon first glance at the College Football Playoff committee's inaugural poll, the most eye-popping thing wasn't who was sitting in the top four spots. Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Mississippi are all deserving enough, and there is enough intraconference infighting remaining that most of the controversy will suss itself out.

No, what was striking was the team nowhere found within the Top 25. Marshall, one of three FBS teams without a loss in 2014, went unranked in Tuesday night's release.

While no one expected the Thundering Herd, a Conference USA outfit without so much as a game against a half-decent opponent, to be among the selection committee favorites, not seeing them at all caused me to double-take like I was looking at a person picking his or her nose in public.

Even the Associated Press and Coaches Polls, each long hesitant to give any praise to non-power-five schools, have Marshall installed at No. 23—but not the 12-person committee whose opinion actually matters. Six two-loss teams were among the committee's Top 25, and even non-traditional power East Carolina, which has one loss, was 23rd.

So, what gives? Is Condoleezza Rice and her cohorts just a pack of #haters? Are they not entertained by the ascent of Rakeem Cato and punishing rushing style of Devon Johnson? Not exactly.

"We had a lot of consideration of Marshall," committee chairman Jeff Long told ESPN. "Obviously they are 8-0, but we looked at that, we compared their schedule, who they played to this point and compared against others and we did not think it was worthy of being placed in the top 25 at this time."

See, Marshall's absence was neither a snub nor an omission. It was more like a mission statement. The biggest takeaway by far coming out of Tuesday night was one singular message: Play nobody, get treated like one.

Strength of schedule was said to be among the four pillars upon which teams were judged, but it's clear which of that foursome took the most precedent. Even outside of outliers like Marshall, the nation's elite were feeling the swift changing of the guard.

Alabama, viewed by most as a semi-lock for the third or fourth spot, wound up in sixth behind Auburn, Ole Miss and Oregon. The reason? The Crimson Tide are yet to earn a signature win. Their only triumph against a Top 25 opponent this season came in their 59-0 shellacking of then-No. 21 Texas A&M. For his part, Alabama head coach Nick Saban was having none of this silly poll nonsense.

"To me, none of it matters," Saban said, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com. "What does it matter? I mean, it only matters where you end up at the end. So what matters to us is how we do in each and every game that we have to play. We have four games left to play, and if we can be successful in those games, maybe there's a chance we will play in the SEC Championship Game as well."

At least Alabama will have a chance to prove itself to the committee. The Tide's four remaining regular-season games include tilts with Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU.

The SEC as a whole was the biggest winner of the initial poll, as expected. The nation's best conference features three of the top four teams and four of the top six. Add No. 11 Georgia into the mix, and the SEC has five potential national title winners within its confines. 

The Big Ten isn't so lucky. No. 8 Michigan State has a decent chance at a Top Four bid if it wins out the rest of the way, but it was a bloodbath otherwise for one of the nation's most storied conferences. At No. 15 and No. 16 respectively, Ohio State and Nebraska are among the lowest-ranked one-loss teams from a power conference. Only Utah, which has played four straight one-possession games, and Duke, which is Duke, received worse news.

The rankings cast doubt on whether the Big Ten champion has a legitimate shot at the playoff. Michigan State, which had a lone loss to Oregon and plays Ohio State next Saturday, has the best chance. The Spartans have already defeated Nebraska and should skate through to the Big Ten Championship Game with a win against the Buckeyes.

"My thought is that the cream is going to rise to the top, and the eventual champion out of this conference will have a great opportunity,'' Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com. "It's a great conference, it's extremely well coached, there's great players in this conference, quick reactors, there's big plays on the offensive side of the ball."

Also on the short end of the scheduling stick is Notre Dame, which got exactly zero boost from its near-upset of Florida State. The Irish are ranked only 10th, four spots behind the AP voters and three worse than the Coaches. 

Again the most glaring factor is quality of opponent. Stanford's demise has left a gaping hole in Notre Dame's quality-wins department, with the loss to Florida State being the Irish's only game against a team currently ranked in the Top 25.

Things are bound to pick up a bit with a trip to Arizona State and a game with Louisville still on the schedule, but it'll be interesting to see how Notre Dame would fare against a two-loss SEC outfit.

There is nothing Notre Dame, Marshall or the entire Big Ten can do about the futility of its scheduling this season. All they can do is bite the bullet and hope the grand poobahs of the SEC and Pac-12 beat themselves up enough that an opportunity arises.

But, if anything, the committee has sent a loud and clear message for the future. It's time for all conferences, the SEC included, to step their scheduling game up.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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Texas Football: How Longhorns Can Avoid Going Winless in November

For many years, the Texas Longhorns have hung a sign above the tunnel to the football field that states, "People Remember November." 

It's cliche, but it is very true.

November is one of the most important months in college football. It's the final stretch of the regular season where teams can prove their worth, or prove they are worthless.

In the case of Texas, the Longhorns just need to put up some wins.

Texas is sitting at 3-5 as it prepares for a gauntlet of a season finale.

The Longhorns have road games at Texas Tech and at Oklahoma State, which are two of the more hostile environments in the Big 12. Texas will also face No. 20 West Virginia in two weeks and No. 7 TCU at home to finish out the 2014 regular season.

None of these games will be gimmes. In fact, there's a good chance Texas may walk away with only one win.

The win will likely come Saturday against Texas Tech.

"You have two teams coming off of a loss. Texas Tech probably figures they have us coming in off a loss, so they have to play well," Texas head coach Charlie Strong said. "Both teams were embarrassed last week."

The Red Raiders' second season under head coach Kliff Kingsbury has been one to forget. Similar to the Longhorns, Kingsbury's team has a 3-5 record and suffered an embarrassing loss last weekend.

And embarrassing is an understatement.

The Red Raiders surrendered 82 points on the road against TCU.

Texas Tech ranks No. 119 in total defense and has given up an average of 506.3 yards per game to opposing offenses.

On paper, this looks to be a favorable matchup for the Longhorns.

But playing in Lubbock is not an easy task. The fans are notoriously loud, throw tortillas on the field and will almost always verbally harass opposing teams from the stands.

It will be up to the Texas players to take control of the sideline and set the tone for the game, which is something the team struggled to do last week against Kansas State.

"It felt flat. There really wasn't any energy on the field at the start of the game," senior wide receiver John Harris said following the 23-0 loss to Kansas State. "There was no energy at all. Not even in the stadium."

Harris' statement caused a lot of reporters to question the mentality of the Longhorns. Is Texas relying on an opposing fanbase to pump up the team?

If so, there will be many more people who question Texas' mentality.

It isn't the job of opposing fanbases to pump up the visiting team. If anything, home crowds are trying to do the exact opposite.

One thing is certain, there will be energy in Jones AT&T Stadium Saturday, but it will not be a pleasant environment for Texas.

Something needs to change with the Longhorns' mindset, and it needs to happen this weekend.

Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes has to get the offense going early against the Red Raiders. The sophomore is coming off of a game where the Longhorns offense put up a goose egg against Kansas State.

If Swoopes truly understands the demands that come with being the starting quarterback for Texas, he should know that type of performance is not acceptable for Texas fans.

In order for Texas to not suffer a winless November, the Longhorns offense has to step up to the task.

There's a good possibility Texas will be underdogs in the final three games of the season. Getting a win Saturday in Lubbock will be vital to the teams' morale moving forward and will keep the postseason bowl hopes alive.

But the road does not end in Lubbock, and the Longhorns have to remember the importance of putting up wins in November.

It's a daunting task for a 3-5 team to upset three of four remaining opponents, but it is not impossible. The Longhorns have to take what the coaches have given them and execute on the field in order to not be forced to watch bowl games from their homes.

"It just comes down to execution. It happens. We haven't executed," Strong said. "But we still have four games left to go play. That's why we don't sit there and say, 'It's the end.' It's not the end. You know what, it's four games. Texas Tech this week, so let's get ready to go play."

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Nebraska's Road to Making the College Football Playoff

Nebraska can't be counted out just yet. After the College Football Playoff committee ranked the Huskers No. 15, it's clear that Bo Pelini and his team have an outside chance of making it into the final four. It's not a significant chance, but the chance is still there regardless.

The Huskers only have one loss (to Michigan State) so far this season. "I know personally we have so much more out there for us," I-back Ameer Abdullah said after the Huskers defeated Rutgers.

What exactly is out there for Nebraska? Can the team really earn a playoff berth?

 

Biggest Obstacles to Playoff Berth

The Huskers do not have an easy path to the playoffs. First and foremost, Nebraska has to face Wisconsin and Iowa on the road. If they survive that, the Huskers would then be looking to face either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.

Before the title game can come into discussion, Nebraska is going to have to travel to Madison, Wisconsin. The last time the Huskers made that trip in 2011, the team lost 48-17. A year later, Nebraska was able to secure a 30-27 victory at home during the regular season. However, the Badgers responded by dropping 70 points on Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game.

Two years later, the Huskers need to beat Wisconsin. It won't be easy, especially with running back Melvin Gordon to worry about. The Abdullah-Gordon showdown is going to be fun to watch, but it's still one Nebraska needs to pay close attention to. Gordon has 1,168 yards and 16 touchdowns on 154 attempts so far this season, per ESPN.com. He's also averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

I've said before that the Wisconsin matchup will be a true test for Pelini. Out of all matchups on the horizon (with the exception of the championship game), Wisconsin is going to be the biggest obstacle.

Beyond future opponents, one of Nebraska's biggest obstacles is itself. The Huskers are often their own worst enemy, but they are going to have to win out. That's going to require discipline in November.

 

Help Needed

Winning out won't be the one thing Nebraska needs to earn a playoff berth. The Huskers will also need a little help.

For instance, it wouldn't hurt for either Kansas State or TCU to drop a game between now and the end of the regular season. It also wouldn't hurt for Michigan State to lose to Ohio State on Nov. 8. That would likely then give the Huskers a matchup with the Buckeyes, who the committee ranked at No. 16, in the Big Ten Championship.

If it came down to Nebraska and Ohio State in the championship game and Nebraska were to win, depending on what played out with the teams ranked higher, the Huskers could find themselves just on the outside of the playoffs.

To help with strength of schedule, the Huskers do need future opponents to keep winning. That's an argument for why Michigan State should keep winning. However, defeating either Ohio State or Michigan State would be beneficial for the Huskers in Indianapolis.

Getting to the playoffs is unfortunately not just on Nebraska. The Huskers will need higher-ranked teams to lose while also relying on future opponents to keep winning to help their strength of schedule.

 

Prediction

According to ESPN Insider (subscription required), Nebraska has a 43.1 percent chance of winning out. As for the toughest opponent left on the schedule? ESPN Insider believes that's Wisconsin and that the Huskers have a 66 percent chance of winning that matchup.

Ultimately, the Big Ten West hasn't been spectacular this year. Making it to Indianapolis is truly in the Huskers' hands, but if they do make it and win, can they truly make the College Football Playoff?

Unfortunately, strength of schedule is going to play a huge factor in Nebraska's shot at the playoffs. Going along with the Big Ten West's (and East's, for that matter) struggles in 2014, it could really harm the Huskers' chances. According to the FEI ratings, Nebraska has only three top-40 opponents on this year's schedule. That doesn't do the Huskers any favors.

The best Nebraska can do at this point is win out and let the cards fall as they may. A playoff berth will require more than just a perfect Nebraska but losses from teams, such as Kansas State or TCU. Relying on the outcome of others is never something to bank on. All Nebraska can do is worry about itself.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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Winners, Losers from College Football Recruiting Trail for Month of October

October featured its fair share of ebbs and flows in the college football recruiting spectrum. Pledges, decommitments and flips further shuffled national 2015 class rankings, building positive momentum for some teams while others dealt with a rough road in recent weeks.

We’re now less than 100 days away from national signing day, making prospect decisions increasingly impactful as programs aim to assemble strong foundations for the future. Here’s a look back at recruiting departments that flourished and floundered this month.

Begin Slideshow

Adjustments the Clemson Tigers Must Make During Their Bye Week

An off week is just what the doctor ordered for the Clemson Tigers because of the way the offense has struggled lately. The open weekend will allow the Tigers to shore up some of their weaknesses, and it will also be good for the injured players to get some extra rest.

The break could help guys like Charone Peake and Martin Jenkins recover, as both of them are listed as questionable for the Wake Forest game.

Healthy or not, there are some adjustments the Tigers need to make this week as they head into the final chapter of the season. In order to win the road game against Georgia Tech and the rivalry showdown with South Carolina, Clemson needs to focus on three areas in particular.

 

Red Zone Struggles

The struggles within the 20-yard line have stood out the most, and this is the biggest adjustment Clemson has to make moving forward.

The Tigers have been in the red zone 33 times this season, but they have only scored on 24 of those trips. According to CFBStats.com, they have scored on only 72.73 percent of their trips, which is tied for 112th in the nation right now.

Over the last few weeks, there have been too many field goals on drives that could have resulted in touchdowns. The offense has been able to get by with field goals because of the way the defense has played, but turning those opportunities into six points is essential in the upcoming games with Georgia Tech and South Carolina.

Stephen Bailey of The Post-Standard, notes just how much Clemson's defense saved the offense in the Syracuse game.

 

Turnovers on Offense

Again, with the way Clemson is playing defensively the turnovers haven’t hurt them much. Despite turning the ball over four times against Syracuse, the defense was able to hold the Orange to just six points, but those things can’t happen moving forward.

The Tigers will see a couple of outstanding offensive units in November, so scoring 16 points likely won't result in a win against Georgia Tech or South Carolina. Georgia Tech ranks 22nd nationally in scoring, and South Carolina is averaging 35.1 points per game.

Per David Hale of ESPN, the Tigers have four more turnovers than touchdowns the last three games.

The problems with turnovers should improve when quarterback Deshaun Watson returns, as he has thrown only two interceptions this season, but the consistency up front also has to improve. Manie Robinson of Greenville Newsnotes that head coach Dabo Swinney says two turnovers were because of offensive line breakdowns.

 

Kick Return

A quick way to help a struggling offense is to start with the ball closer to your end zone. Whether you start on the 18-yard line or the 40-yard line can make a difference, and the returns can have an impact on momentum.

The Tigers are averaging just 17.43 yards per kickoff return, which is 124th nationally, according to CFBStats.com.

Per Scott Keepfer of Greenville News, Swinney recently said that "We've got to look at things schematically and personnel-wise—the guys who are blocking.”

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10 Biggest Questions Facing Top 25 Teams Heading into Week 10

Brace yourselves, college football fans: Winter is coming. 

But, more immediately, November is coming. The College Football Playoff selection committee has released its first top 25, but conference play will soon create a clearer separation of the contenders and pretenders. 

There are particularly important games in the SEC (Auburn at Ole Miss), the Big 12 (TCU at West Virginia) and the Pac-12 (Utah at Arizona State and Arizona at UCLA). A lot is already on the line. The playoff field may get much thinner after this weekend. 

Which storylines are the most important heading into Week 9? The answers are in the following slides. 

The only criterion here is that one of the teams involved has to rank in either the Associated Press poll or the Amway coaches poll.

Begin Slideshow

Pac-12's Sleeper Playoff Contenders, Can Ducks Finally Figure Stanford Out?

A "Desert Sweep" cemented the 2014 Pac-12 football power as centered in the South. Arizona State has the division lead heading into November, while UCLA, the near-unanimous preseason pick, sits in fifth, its postseason hopes alive after barely averting a stunning collapse in Boulder.

As the South enters a month of round-robin knockout play, the North will be decided this Saturday in Eugene by the usual suspects, Stanford and Oregon.

Last weekend's least-heralded games provided the most notable results. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez must have wondered why he hears so much about the trip to Pullman. On a fall afternoon prescribed for football (60 degrees, light overcast), Arizona dominated the Cougars in a manner that left too many questions hanging over the Washington State program (see below).

Building a 31-0 lead before the halfway point of the second quarter, the Wildcats deflated an enthused Pullman crowd. By the fourth quarter, those same fans were decimated. The Spokesman-Review ran a picture in its Sunday edition of a half-empty section in Martin Stadium. For WSU football, it was not a sales pitch.

Anu Solomon was the best quarterback on the field in Pullman, throwing for five touchdowns while leading a turnover-free offense. By passing so efficiently and striking for big plays (four completions of 20-plus yards), Arizona set up its run game to take over in the second half.

Here is an oddity: Washington State has not scored a point on its first possession this year, zero points in eight games. Connor Halliday's first two drives Saturday: three-and-out, interception. By then, the Cougars were playing straight uphill. And Arizona's defense was fine in allowing the "'imaginative" sideways passing game that builds stats more than points.

It was the first time I had seen Scooby Wright in person this season, and he impressed. The Wildcats often used four rush men spread wide (a technique often called "Wide 9"), and it helped sack Halliday four times. Announcers often measure a defensive player's impact by how many times that name is mentioned during a game. It isn't a perfect measure, but in this game, Wright was involved in every significant Arizona defensive play.

There was no welcoming weather for Arizona State, as Puget Sound was buffeted by brutal winds and rain. Thus, the Sun Devils and Washington had little offense. Every level of football preaches the same bad weather formula: no mistakes and sound special teams. ASU won the turnover battle, forcing three from the Huskies. And Washington's punt game struggled, averaging only 30 yards on eight punts.

Taylor Kelly returned for ASU and generated the night's most important offense with a pair of touchdown passes, the second a game-clincher to Gary Chambers in the fourth quarter.

One man's guess: Todd Graham believes his team's best chance to beat Utah and Notre Dame in the next two weeks is with Kelly.

If the Sun Devils do that, they will force their way into the College Football Playoff conversation. 

Arizona holds similar hopes. This year’s Territorial Cup, November 28 in Tucson, could hold both conference and national significance for each school.

 

Biggest Disappointment of the Season  

Washington State fooled me. A six-win season with the return of a fifth-year quarterback running an offense for the third year was enough to convince me the Cougars, as I posted here in August, could win seven or eight and play in a respectable bowl.

Saturday's game in Pullman was a major downturn for Cougar fans. There is no semblance of a running game, with only the slightest hint of an effort to establish one. The pass game is too often sideline-to-sideline. 

A candid takeaway from a play-by-play announcer: I left Martin Stadium with no idea how to describe the Cougar offense. How are they trying to score points? Wise football men I ask share some of my thoughts. Now I know Mike Leach has a plan. But if I can't see one—and this is the only Pac-12 team about whom I have said this—then how do the Cougar fans/boosters? And they are the ones Leach should care about.

Another takeaway: Leach often uses "inexperience" as an explanation for the Cougars play. As reported by The Spokesman-Review Sunday, Leach on his defense's struggles in stopping Solomon: "I think (the inexperience affected us) quite a bit. We've got a lot of inexperience out there and I think that's part of why we're erratic."

Fair enough. Now, the questions: In Year 3, where are Leach's recruits in the position groups he most cites for their youth, offensive line and defensive backfield? Does Paul Wulff receive credit for last year's six-win team that featured three graduated OL starters, DB Deone Bucannon, a first-round NFL pick and Halliday—all players recruited by Wulff?

Washington State has supported Leach like no other coach. A completed football facility and renovated stadium have bred tremendous hope for Cougar faithful. What they are seeing this year is a blizzard of numbers for Halliday and receivers, none of which can obscure the only numbers that matter: 2-6.

 

USC Losing Control

Utah received its best stretch of quarterback play this season when it was most needed. Travis Wilson doesn't look stylish, but he led a strong two-minute drive to beat USC.

Wilson's legs provided the penultimate play, a head-strong dash in the closing 30 seconds that left the ball a foot short of the goal line. Strong defense and special teams have been Utah's main ingredients, but that drive proved with certainty that the Utes need something from Wilson to beat the best teams.

But watching this in Spokane left me puzzled by the Trojans for the second time this year. On the game's second play, Darreus Rogers did not catch a pass CLEARLY thrown backwards. He allowed the ball to clank off his shoulder pads and carom forward. (In fairness, a number of other players did not react.) Davion Orphey finally picked up the ball and ran it back for a touchdown. 

The problem? Rogers had no idea the football was live.

If your offense feature sideways and backwards passes, then the players must know the rules. That is the responsibility of the coaches.

Second: USC faces fourth-and-two inside the Utah 30 with just over two minutes to play. 45-yard FG try? No. Pooch punt? No. The Trojans line up and run a play. They run a toss to the tailback. After a moment frozen in horror, I realize the runner is Nelson Agholor. He stretches to the sideline but can't maintain balance and steps out short of the line to gain. 

The problem? USC chose a fourth down running play with a wide receiver! Buck Allen? No.

A former Trojan told me this week that he felt USC wanted to deceive Utah by using Allen as the “up” back in the I-formation. A toss to Agholor would be unexpected. The result was devastating as echoed by the former player, “And he couldn’t stay in bounds.”

 

Stanford vs. Oregon

The twist in this game was outlined in last week's post

Royce Freeman is an offensive force Oregon has not presented in recent years. Not only does Stanford have to defend Freeman, but also its offensive plan won’t involve a dominant runner in the mold of Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney.

Stanford, however, added a previously unseen wrinkle last Saturday. David Shaw unveiled a no-huddle offense.

Yes, the Cardinal of huddles, tight ends and fullbacks actually spread the field. The offense was new, and the results were welcome. Stanford scored 38 points against Oregon State and totaled 438 yards of offense. 

Why the change though?

Here's a thought: Kevin Hogan has poor numbers against the blitz. 

Note: (minimum 20 attempts)

He has a longer (read slower) delivery thus pressure has disrupted Stanford's pass game. Mix in a young offensive line that isn't at the standard of Stanford's recent years with the lack of a dominant running back and defenses ramp up the blitz.

If teams don't fear being punished by big plays, they will blitz endlessly. 

Thus, Stanford's response. Does it bring this offense to Eugene? Can the Cardinal find a new way to deny the Ducks a spot in the Pac-12 championship?

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Pac-12's Sleeper Playoff Contenders, Can Ducks Finally Figure Stanford Out?

A "Desert Sweep" cemented the 2014 Pac-12 football power as centered in the South. Arizona State has the division lead heading into November, while UCLA, the near-unanimous preseason ...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

FSU Football Team Marches Past Louisville Crab Shack, Practices in Local Park

The Florida State football team is in Louisville, Kentucky, this week, and it would appear the Seminoles are going with a “no media, no seafood” strategy to prepare for Thursday's game against the Cardinals.

CollegeSpun.com’s Dan Lyons spotted a string of tweets from The Voice-Tribune photojournalist Chris Humphreys, who happened upon a makeshift FSU practice in a downtown Louisville park.

Humphreys tweeted pictures of the team going about walkthroughs Waterfront Park.

Only minor statutes were broken.

Judging by his subsequent tweets, Humphreys had to fight for his right to remain in the area. The photographer tweeted that the team left after its private security personnel failed to kick media out of the park. 

To its credit, the team marched stoically past a local Joe’s Crab Shack while departing.

It also appears Humphreys has made some new friends in the Seminole nation.

And thus went another afternoon with the Florida State football team—a program quickly becoming a parody of itself as this most dramatic of college football seasons progresses.

The undefeated Seminoles take on the 6-2 Cardinals Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.

 

Follow Dan on Twitter for more sports and pop culture filigree.

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College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Standings and Breakdown of 1st Release

Months of waiting and anticipation surrounding college football finally gave way to the first College Football Playoff rankings. Now, the controversy over who deserves to be there is already underway.

Ahead of the first playoff in the sport, just four teams will have a chance to play for the title. Those four teams at the top for now are Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss, but it likely won't stay that way.

In fact, Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN already noted how the rankings might be shaken up by the end of the year:

Every ranking system sparks arguments over who should be in the top spots, but none is as crucial as the committee rankings. Following the announcement, here's a look at the rankings and analysis of the first poll.

 

Breakdown of Week 10 Poll

From the first release, it's clear that the SEC has a slight stranglehold over the top of the rankings. The only question going in was which teams would ultimately be in the top four.

Alabama was tabbed as the No. 3 team in the country by the Associated Press, but that didn't guarantee anything in the College Football Playoff poll. The loss to Ole Miss on the road ultimately hurt Alabama as the Tigers were propelled into the playoff picture.

However, Nick Saban wasn't exactly worried about where the Tide are ranked at this point, via Aaron Suttles of the Tuscaloosa News:

Truth be told, it genuinely doesn't mean much at this point. Sure, Mississippi State, Auburn and Ole Miss are in the discussion of the top teams for now, but the SEC West contenders have a daunting upcoming schedule.

One of the biggest things we learned from the first rankings was how important the head-to-head record is, but the actual strength of schedule is also significant. Greg McElroy of the SEC Network provided his take on the value of wins:

Not only does that put importance on games in the rear-view mirror, but also on what's coming up. Teams that slip up against a lesser opponent or are playing cupcakes might slide in the polls. That also clearly explains why an undefeated team in Marshall was nowhere on the opening poll.

As far as remaining schedules are concerned, Mississippi State might have the toughest of any top team. If they win out, they might have a shot at remaining the No. 1 team, but even one loss might not mean the end of their chances at a title shot.

ESPN College Football gives a look at the upcoming schedule for the Bulldogs:

Several weeks stand between now and the end of the season, so nothing is secured by the SEC or any other conference. Outliers such as TCU and Oregon will make strong cases, but it's all in the hands of the committee.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Oregon Football: Ducks' Road to Making the College Football Playoff

EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon's mantra is "Win The Day." However, when it comes to the College Football Playoff, the Ducks should be thinking "Win and You're In."

The Ducks (7-1, 4-1) are ranked No. 5 by the playoff committee, which is appropriate considering their No. 5 ranking by the Associated Press poll and No. 6 ranking by the Coaches Poll. While there may a subset of Oregon fans who are dismayed by the fact that the Ducks are the "first team out" of the playoff right now, they shouldn't be. 

Oregon is right where it needs to be and, to be frank, is lucky to be in such a position after a devastating early-season loss to Arizona in Eugene. That loss could have easily cost the Ducks their shot at a place in the playoff; however, they've been granted a second chance.

Jeff Long, the College Football Playoff committee chair and current Arkansas athletic director, was asked directly by ESPN's Rece Davis about Oregon's No. 5 ranking and why it was ranked ahead of Arizona—ranked No. 12—by the committee. "You look at Oregon, they not only beat Michigan State, but they went on the road and had a good win at UCLA" said Long, according to Chance Litton of 247 Sports. "So I think their body of work—as you guys have said and we use a lot in the room as well—is better than that of (Arizona)." 

Some Oregon fans may say, "Well, if the College Football season ended today Oregon would be left out like it was on 2001! SEC biased! This system is a crock!" Fortunately, the season isn't even close to over, and should the Ducks be able to take down Stanford—something they've failed to do the past two seasons—Oregon will likely be in the top four next week.

The Ducks are sitting pretty at No. 5. If they win, they're in. However, that's easier said than done.

 

Biggest Obstacles to Playoff Berth 

We’ve established that if Oregon wins out it's likely to earn a bid in the College Football Playoff. The Ducks have four regular-season games left and a potential Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 if they can win the Pac-12 North. That means that the Ducks have at least four more tough games ahead on their schedule and a home game against Colorado that shouldn’t be much of a contest. For this exercise, let’s assume that Colorado represents an easy victory.

First up for the Ducks is Stanford on Nov. 1. This is obviously the big one considering Stanford has derailed Oregon’s shot at a national title for the past two seasons. There’s no doubt that Stanford is having a down year. Currently the Cardinal are 5-3 on the season and last week dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 72 weeks.

However, the Cardinal are still one of the best defensive teams in the country and have the ability to knock off the Ducks for the third consecutive season. Stanford ranks No. 2 in the country in total defense and in scoring defense. While Oregon has struggled against Stanford’s suffocating defense the past two seasons—scoring a combined 34 points—the Ducks did score 46 points against the No. 6-ranked defense in the country this season: Michigan State. That should give the Ducks some hope of succeeding against Stanford; however, it’s a tall task.

 *Must win Pac-12 North division

The road doesn’t get any easier for the Ducks if they finally take down Stanford. In fact, Stanford may not be Oregon’s stiffest test left on the schedule. It may end up being the Utah Utes. Utah—currently 6-1—will be waiting for the Ducks in Salt Lake City. The Utes are ranked No. 17 by the playoff committee and have beaten Michigan, UCLA and Oregon State on the road and last week took down a talented USC team at home.

Utah is going to be a tough out for Oregon because it has a strong defense—ranked No. 29 in the nation in scoring defense—its running game, led by junior Devontae Booker, is tremendous and Rice-Eccles Stadium sits 4,657 feet above sea level. It’s not an easy place to play, and the Utes will give the Ducks fits on both sides of the ball. This has “let-down game” written all over it if the Ducks beat Stanford.

Then comes a bye week for the Ducks on Nov. 15 and is followed by a home game against aforementioned Colorado on Nov. 22. While the Buffs have been more competitive this year, Oregon should be able to dominate on both sides of the ball if it's healthy.

If the Ducks go undefeated against Stanford, Utah and Colorado, which would be impressive, they would be 10-1 overall and 7-1 in the Pac-12 heading into the Civil War. The Beavers would love nothing more than to knock the Ducks out of the College Football Playoff picture.

Oregon State (4-3, 1-3) has been mediocre this season, at best; however, you can never discount the Beavers in the Civil War, especially in Corvallis. You don’t have to look any further than last year’s matchup to see how competitive Oregon State is capable of being against the Ducks.

The Ducks won the 2013 Civil War 36-35 on a touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota to Josh Huff—now with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles—with 29 seconds left. The Beavers gained 545 yards, scored 35 points and forced the Ducks into three turnovers. While the Beavers may not be as competitive as they were last year, they still pose a threat to Oregon’s playoff aspirations.

Let’s say Oregon beats Oregon State to move to 11-1 on the season and wins the Pac-12 North division in the process. The Ducks would then be faced with a Pac-12 championship game on six days rest at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 5 against the Pac-12 South champion.

The advantage for the Ducks in this situation is that they’ve already played at Levi’s Stadium this season—a 59-41 victory over California on Oct. 24. However, the Pac-12 South is loaded with talent, and Oregon would likely be facing another top-20 team. Each of the teams that could potentially win the Pac-12 South—UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona State or Utah—pose their own unique threat to the Ducks.

Whomever it is, it’s going to be a difficult challenge for the Ducks, especially when you consider magnitude of the game and what would be potentially at stake for Oregon. If the Ducks are 11-1, they won’t only be playing for a Pac-12 title, they’ll be playing for a shot at the national title.

 

Help Needed

The Ducks aren’t going to need a lot of outside help to get into the College Football Playoff. While Oregon would be the first team out of the playoff if the season ended today, there’s a good chance that the Ducks will find themselves in the top four come next Tuesday if they are able to knock off Stanford.

No. 3 Auburn and No. 4 Ole Miss meet up this week in Oxford, Mississippi, and it will likely serve as the country’s first elimination game. While it’s possible for a two-loss SEC team to get into the inaugural playoff, it’s not likely. Therefore, since Auburn and Ole Miss have one loss already, one of them is going to get knocked out of contention this weekend.

In my mind there are six teams that control their own destiny, meaning that if these six teams won the rest of their games and their conference championship they would be in the College Football Playoff. Those six teams, in no particular order, are Florida State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Alabama and Oregon.

Four of those six teams reside in the SEC West, meaning only one of them will have the opportunity to win the SEC championship and punch their ticket to the playoff. The other three SEC West teams would then fire up the PR machine and attempt to convince the committee and the nation that they are deserving of a spot in the playoff as the second SEC team.

For Oregon and Florida State it’s simple because there are no other true competitors for a playoff spot in their conference. Sure, if Arizona was able to win out and beat the Ducks again in the Pac-12 championship it may be deserving of a spot. However, that’s a long way away. If Oregon and Florida State win the Pac-12 and ACC, respectively, without dropping a game, they’ll earn bids into the playoff.

While the Ducks likely don't need help getting into the playoff if they're able to win out, it would be helpful to their cause if Michigan State can beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten title with one loss. The Ducks would also benefit from Arizona winning the Pac-12 South with one loss. If the Ducks were able to beat a one-loss Arizona team in the Pac-12 championship game and avenge their early-season loss, their resume would be nearly flawless.

The Ducks do not need to think too much about being left out of the College Football Playoff. If Oregon continues winning, it’ll find itself in New Orleans or, more likely, Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1.

 

Prediction

The Ducks have four games remaining on their regular-season schedule and a potential Pac-12 championship game to follow if they can win the Pac-12 North division.

While these five games provide Oregon the opportunity to impress the playoff committee, it's not exactly like the Ducks are going to waltz to a Pac-12 title either. Oregon has two very difficult road games ahead of it—Utah and Oregon State—and has to face its Achilles' heel—Stanford—at home.

If the Ducks manage to make it past those three opponents unscathed and hold serve against lowly Colorado, they will be rewarded with an extremely tough Pac-12 title matchup against either UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona State or Utah. Regardless of whom the opponent is, it'll be a battle for the Ducks.

This is all to say that Oregon's path to the playoff is clear; however, it may be a long and winding road to get there.

Do I think Oregon will be in the inaugural College Football Playoff? Yes, I do. Why? Because the Ducks have the best quarterback in the entire country in Marcus Mariota and, with a healthy offensive line, the Ducks offense can bail them out of each and every game.

The Ducks need to improve significantly over the coming weeks if they are to make it to the playoff, specifically on defense. However, it's Mariota's world, and as long as he's playing the way he's playing right now, the Ducks should be able to run the table.

Oregon will end the season at 12-1 overall, 9-1 in conference play (including the Pac-12 title game) and will meet a SEC West team from the state of Mississippi in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 as the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff.

 

Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes were acquired firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

 

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