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SEC Chaos Ushering Notre Dame Closer to the College Football Playoff

It seems likely the College Football Playoff committee breathed a collective sigh of relief about Saturday’s outcomes in the Southeastern Conference. And we’ll have to wait until Tuesday’s first playoff rankings to know for sure, but it seems like the biggest beneficiary of Ole Miss’ first loss will be the school that so often leads the nation in good luck, Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish figure to rise for playoff consideration even though they didn’t play Saturday and are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Florida State. But they have key factors working in their favor as the playoff picture comes into sharper focus.

First and foremost, the path of 6-1 Notre Dame doesn’t have as many potholes as most other playoff contenders, particularly the SEC teams. The biggest challenges are a Nov. 8 date at 6-1 Arizona State, and a season-ending tilt at Southern Cal, where the Trojans are looking more and more beatable after taking their third loss on Saturday.

Plus, being an independent means the Irish won’t face the emotions of an all-or-nothing conference championship game on neutral turf, which is a huge advantage over the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 schools.

Meantime, Notre Dame will be rooting hard for Florida State to remain undefeated. The Irish loss to FSU is actually one of the best things on its record, since it came on the road against the defending national champion and was one pass-interference call away from being an upset victory.

Look for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to play that card deftly the rest of the way as his team strives to finish 11-1.

“Look, they were on a national stage, and they showed everybody what kind of football team they were,” Kelly reminded reporters at last week's press conference.

But what possibly will surface as even bigger edge for the Irish is the thought process of the College Football Playoff committee.

The committee has made public a very lengthy protocol for its selection process. But my gut feeling is that one thing that has been left out is that the 12 voters will strive to pick a four-team field that’s representative of all of college football. I think they’ll want four teams that have a good geographical spread, a group that limits the provincial belly-aching or claims of bias.

They’ll want this first playoff to be popular make a feel-good impression with as much of the nation as possible.

No college football team has a bigger national following than Notre Dame. The Irish fanbase is spread from coast to coast, which is why the television network executives love them and their ratings appeal so much. And if you don’t think TV is a factor, you don’t realize who’s paying the bills.

For all the promises that committee members will recuse themselves from discussions about schools where they have financial ties, let’s remember two things about the committee members: 1) They’re human. 2) They’re football fans.

So if Notre Dame is on the bubble, it’s conceivable that committee member Condoleezza Rice, a Notre Dame alum, would invoke some of the diplomatic skills she culled as the U.S. Secretary of State on behalf of the Fighting Irish. (Rice also was born in Alabama, so she may have some very sleepless nights coming up.)

But Rice or any other potential Notre Dame advocate may have their work done for them by the SEC meat grinder that’s heating up. (And it might hurt the SEC that Archie Manning's knee problems have caused the former Ole Miss quarterback to resign from the playoff committee.) 

Seeing LSU make Ole Miss look so overrated doesn't help the SEC make a case for two playoff spots, and one glance at what’s left of the SEC schedule makes it obvious that some of the conference’s elite teams will suffer a second defeat in November. The SEC probably still has to of the best four teams in the nation, but it will be tough to justify giving a playoff spot to any team with two defeats.

Auburn faces a brutal gauntlet, with road games at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. That uphill climb starts Saturday at Ole Miss, where the Rebels no doubt will be in a mood to avenge the loss at LSU.

Alabama finally has its offense rolling, but a Nov. 8 date at LSU will land the Crimson Tide in the same Death Valley atmosphere that Bo Wallace described as "the craziest place I've played" after Saturday's loss.

Undefeated Mississippi State showed vulnerability while surviving at Kentucky despite Patrick Towles' 390 passing yards on Saturday, but the Bulldogs have much tougher days ahead. Alabama comes to Starkville on Nov. 15, and the Nov. 29 trip to Ole Miss looms as the most meaningful game in the history of the Egg Bowl.

Whichever SEC West team survives those showdowns will have to get right back on the field for one more test the Saturday after its rivalry game, for the conference championship. The likely opponent will be Georgia, in the Georgia Dome, and by then the Bulldogs might have a vengeful Todd Gurley back in the lineup, ready to put his rested legs to work after serving an NCAA suspension.

And Notre Dame will be able to just sit back and enjoy the carnage.

 

Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.

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Bowl Predictions 2014: College Football Playoff Projections Following Week 9

The 2014 college football season has been complete madness through nine weeks of action. Upset victories have become a common trend while preseason polls seem like a distant memory, as previously unranked teams currently stand tall over the rest of the nation. And there's still plenty of time for even more changes before the College Football Playoff.

While there is a clear-cut Top Four following Saturday's action, chances are some of those teams won't be in the playoff discussion when the regular season comes to a close. Due to some very tough remaining schedules for top squads and other surging, lower-ranked teams climbing up the standings, we should expect continued movement in the rankings. This is where speculation comes into play.

Based on the current standings, recent on-field performances and impending matchups, here's a prediction of college football's Top Four teams following the conclusion of the regular season and their corresponding bowl games.

 

Bowl Predictions

Sugar Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Notre Dame

Rose Bowl: Florida State vs. Oregon

 

Final Rankings

1. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs remained unbeaten through Week 9, but it wasn't by the prettiest of performances.

Quarterback Dak Prescott moved the offense well enough to notch the win, but his efficiency wasn't up to par. He completed 18 of his 33 passing attempts for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Kentucky's secondary. Luckily, Mississippi State's offense fared far better on the ground.

Running back Josh Robinson was fantastic, carrying 23 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Prescott carried 18 times for 88 yards and two scores of his own. Sports Illustrated tweeted Robinson's most ridiculous run of the day:

The team accumulated 326 yards on the ground; there's no reason to dispute that this is one of the nation's juggernaut offenses.

Defense is a whole different story.

Kentucky's Patrick Towles threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns as the Wildcats accumulated 504 yards of offense and 31 points. That's not a good sign due to the fact that the Bulldogs still must face the prolific offenses of Alabama and Ole Miss later this season.

Still, Mississippi State will retain the No. 1 spot with continued stellar offensive output, finishing the season undefeated.

 

2. Florida State

The Seminoles were inactive Saturday during their bye week and remain in the No. 2 spot. Defeating Notre Dame proved two things about Florida State in Week 8: that this team can step up against the nation's best, and that Jameis Winston is a resilient quarterback who flourishes in the face of adversity.

College GameDay tweeted Winston's impressive home winning streak:

Florida State didn't have a lead against the Fighting Irish until the final score of the game with 7:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. This team proved it is comprised of fighters on both sides of the ball, which will lead to an undefeated season when combined with a very easy remaining schedule.

Without a single ranked opponent left on the Seminoles' slate this season, expect five more convincing wins to hold this squad in position as the nation's second-ranked team.

 

3. Oregon

Oregon has virtually the same story as Mississippi State: This team has a prolific offense but is really lacking on the defensive side of the ball.

Marcus Mariota may be the best quarterback in the nation right now and was dynamic on Saturday against California, passing for 326 yards and five touchdowns. The signal-caller has plenty of weapons at his disposal as well: Royce Freeman and Byron Marshall have been creating matchup nightmares for opposing defenses all year.

Here's a look at how dominant Mariota has been this season, via ESPN College Football:

Defensively, the Ducks could improve. On Saturday, they allowed quarterback Jared Goff to throw for 360 yards and two touchdowns while allowing the Golden Bears to score four times on the ground. Giving up 41 points to a .500 team isn't a great sign for this defense going forward.

Luckily for the Ducks, they have an offense that is virtually unrivaled. This team thrives by simply outscoring its opponents and is very good at doing so. With Utah being the only ranked team remaining on Oregon's schedule, it's easy to see the Ducks winning out and moving up into the nation's top-ranked one-loss team.

 

4. Notre Dame

With a one-loss team taking up the No. 3 spot in the rankings, the Fighting Irish have a great chance to move into No. 4. A last-second loss against the nation's second-ranked team gives Notre Dame a certified "quality loss" in the eyes of voters.

The Fighting Irish took a small fall down the standings after facing Florida State; however, the drop was limited due to the impressive performance displayed by quarterback Everett Golson and his supporting cast. Notre Dame's offense exceeded expectations, putting up a total of 470 yards on the road in a loud, hostile environment.

Dane Brugler of CBS Sports tweeted his thoughts on the Notre Dame offense:

On the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame won in the trenches, allowing just 1.9 yards per carry to the Seminoles and forcing Winston to win the game with his arm. After watching that performance, the Fighting Irish should have no trouble winning out against the likes of Arizona State and USC.

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Southern Cal vs. Utah: Game Grades, Analysis for Trojans, Utes

In a thrilling Pac-12 South Division showdown, the Utah Utes were able to come away with a slim 24-21 victory over the visiting Southern Cal Trojans.

Utah signal-caller Travis Wilson was sensational on the game-winning drive. A 19-yard scramble helped to set up the go-ahead 1-yard touchdown throw to Kaelin Clay with 0:08 remaining in the contest. Devontae Booker also had a hand in the victory—rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown. 

It was a very tough defeat for the Trojans. The defense for the most part did a very good job of bottling up the second-leading rusher in the Pac-12. Cody Kessler displayed considerable grit throughout the night, and made some big plays. 

However, two turnovers led to touchdowns by the Utes. Questionable decision-making and play-calling by the staff also didn't help matters much. 

A full box score can be found here, courtesy of NCAA.com. Check out first-half grades and final grades for both the Trojans and Utes. Additional analysis for positional units will also be addressed. 

 

USC Trojans Game Analysis

Passing Offense

The opening play was strange, to say the least. Whether it was a misunderstanding between quarterback and receiver, it resulted in a touchdown for Utah nonetheless. 

In terms of Kessler's play, he was very good. His awareness in the pocket was on full display, as he was able to step up to evade pressure and make throws down the field. Aside from one poorly thrown ball to Nelson Agholor, he was one of the better players for the Trojans on the night. For the game, Kessler went 24-of-32 for 264 yards and a touchdown. 

In terms of pass protection, the unit did well despite the injury to starting left tackle Chad Wheeler. 

Utah led the nation in sacks per game heading into tonight's contest, and it finished below their season average of six. 

 

Pass Defense

Adoree' Jackson in particular was very good in coverage. He battled immensely hard, and even forced a fumble. The longest pass play of the evening went for only 18 yards. SC's secondary competed hard at the line of scrimmage, and it was able to neutralize Dres Anderson effectively. 

 

Rushing Offense

The vaunted SC ground game never fully got into a rhythm. Credit Utah's defensive front for plugging the holes up front, but the Trojans offensive line seemed to have poor get-off when it came to run blocking. 

Buck Allen finished with only 101 yards on 27 carries. Congratulations are in order to him, as he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the year. 

 

Rush Defense

In the first half, the Trojans held the second-leading rusher in the conference to 32 yards. The defensive front was winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, and even forced three fumbles (two of which came from Devontae Booker). 

In the second half, Booker came alive and ran with more effectiveness. Despite the Utah tailback accruing over 100 yards on the evening, USC made him work for every yard. It was a very strong performance by the front seven. 

 

Special Teams

Jackson displayed why he was regarded as one of the top recruits in the country coming out of high school. Based on his electric kickoff return for a touchdown, USC should look to get the ball in his hands more. 

The only blemish on the evening came from the big 54-yard punt return by Kaelin Clay, which helped to give Utah great field position. 

 

Coaching

The decision on the fourth-down try late in the game will be a huge talking point in Los Angeles this week for the media. Steve Sarkisian will be questioned for not attempting a field goal, but also for calling a pitch option to a wide receiver.

Although Allen hadn't been running with tremendous effectiveness, he's your best option in a short-yardage situation. Defensively, there was seemingly a reluctance to blitz Wilson—especially in the second half. As the old adage says, "prevent defense prevents you from winning."

 

Utah Utes Game Analysis

Passing Offense

Wilson was efficient on the night. He wasn't asked to make many throws down the field. In fact, Utah's longest pass play went for 18 yards. This was by design, in order to accentuate Wilson's strengths. The underneath routes to Westlee Tonga were effective. 

However, there wasn't an attempt to stretch the field vertically with Anderson or Kenneth Scott. Utah could afford to at least give the opposition the threat of throwing deep. Regardless, Wilson did not turn the ball over. He finished 18-of-32 for 193 yards and a touchdown.

 

Pass Defense

In the first half, USC was gashing Utah with crossing routes and throws underneath. The Trojans did a nice job of attacking the Utes when they brought pressure. 

In the second half, a minor adjustment was made. Utah opted to play more zone in order to compensate for the speed of USC's skill players. Although Kessler threw for 264 yards, the longest pass play for the Trojans went 28 yards. Utah did a nice job of not allowing USC to beat it deep for a big play. 

 

 

Rushing Offense

Credit USC's defense for stonewalling Booker in the first half. Much like USC's offensive line, Utah's group was unable to open up holes in the ground game. Utah averaged only 3.3 yards per carry on the night. 

It did a nice job of protecting Wilson on passing situations, but the run game as a whole ran for only 137 yards on 42 carries. 

 

Rush Defense

The front seven did a terrific job of plugging the gaps and virtually living in the backfield. Blitzes came from all angles and really clogged things up front. In particular, Jason Fanaika and Jared Norris were extremely active. 

Utah held the Pac-12 leading rusher to only 101 yards on 27 carries. This equates out to a paltry 3.7 yards per carry average. 

 

Special Teams

The kickoff return for a touchdown by Jackson was very un-Utah-like. However, the electric punt return by Clay helped to give Utah great field position. 

Andy Phillips connected on his only field-goal attempt, and punter Tom Hackett was strong—averaging over 46 yards per punt. 

 

Coaching

Offensively, the play-calling was a bit conservative. There wasn't a whole lot of faith in Wilson delivering the ball down the field vertically. The reemergence of the run game in the second half enabled offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to be more creative. If anything, the play-calling did cater to Wilson's strengths as a player. This was particularly true when Wilson would roll out and take advantage of his mobility.

Defensively, the unit played more zone in the second half. It shrunk the field—cutting off some of the underneath routes SC exploited in the first half. Utah also devised a great scheme versus SC's elite running back. 

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Southern Cal vs. Utah: Game Grades, Analysis for Trojans, Utes

In a thrilling Pac -12 South Division showdown, the Utah Utes were able to come away with a slim 24-21 victory over the visiting Southern Cal Trojans. Utah signal-caller Travis Wilson was sensational on the game-winning drive...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

USC Falls Short in True Game of Inches, Spoils Chance at Pac-12 Title

No. 20 USC tried to walk the tightrope one too many times in its 24-21 loss at No. 19 Utah Saturday, and falling inches short cost the Trojans immeasurably in the Pac-12 championship race. 

Taking a pitch from quarterback Cody Kessler, wide receiver Nelson Agholor broke up the sideline for a fourth-down run that, if converted, would salt away USC's four-point lead. But Agholor stepped out of bounds just one yard shy of the first-down marker, turning over possession to the Utes for their game-winning drive. 

Consider Agholor's misstep karma for the few inches that broke the Trojans' way earlier. Two Utah drives stalled at the USC one-yard line when the Utes coughed up fumbles. 

One came on a strip made by cornerback Adoree' Jackson, who had nothing but turf 99 yards ahead of him but the play was whistled dead. 

Seeing both the winning and losing ends of that game of inches is nothing new for this USC team. It's been the Trojans' M.O. for much of the Pac-12 season, and head coach Steve Sarkisian even addressed it after their Week 7 win at Arizona when he said they were a Hail Mary against Arizona State away from being a Top Five team.  

True as that may be, USC also benefited from a wayward field-goal attempt in the final seconds at Arizona, as well as repeated red-zone failures by the Stanford offense in Week 2. 

USC surged ahead in the Pac-12 South with wins that were decided by a few feet. Now, the Trojans find themselves looking up at three teams because of a few feet. 

Of course, offensive deficiencies plagued USC well before Agholor stepped out of bounds on a play-call sure to be heavily scrutinized in the coming days. 

After an impressive second drive, which culminated with Kessler finding John "JuJu" Smith for a 10-yard score, the USC offense went stagnant for 45 minutes of game time. 

Smith's touchdown reception and Kessler's four-yard connection with Darreus Rogers in the fourth quarter book-ended a 100-yard kickoff return for a score by Jackson in the second quarter. 

Otherwise, USC's offense was rendered stagnant. That's been a recurring problem for the Trojans in 2014, with their Week 8 rout of Colorado seemingly reigniting that side of the ball. 

But it was abundantly clear Saturday in Rice-Eccles Stadium that Utah isn't Colorado. 

Utah demonstrated why it entered Week 9 with the nation's No. 21-ranked run defense. USC running back Javorius "Buck" Allen went for 101 yards, but he had to work for every bit of it with a 3.7-yard per carry average. 

The USC defense matched Utah blow-for-blow, very nearly making a third stop at the one-yard line to win it.

But after Utah's first play from the goal line failed, quarterback Travis Wilson found Kaelin Clay on a roll-out for the game-winner.  

Two Pac-12 South losses sealed by touchdown passes with zeroes on the clock could be all it takes to keep USC out of the conference title picture. 

The Trojans trail Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, each of which has just one conference game. USC handed Arizona its lone defeat, thus the Trojans just need one more Wildcats loss. 

But by losing to both the Sun Devils and Utes, USC's one-game deficit in the division is more like two. Both hold tiebreakers over the Trojans. 

Now the inches that eluded the Trojans look a lot more like miles in an increasingly contentious Pac-12 South race. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics via CFBstats.com and USAToday.com 

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USC Falls Short in True Game of Inches, Spoils Chance at Pac-12 Title

No. 20 USC tried to walk the tightrope one too many times in its 24-21 loss at No. 19 Utah Saturday, and falling inches short cost the Trojans immeasurably in the Pac -12 championship race...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

College Football Rankings Week 10: B/R's Official Top 25

With another unbeaten biting the dust, we are down to two power-conference teams without a loss. As a result, figuring out the top two teams in the Bleacher Report Top 25 wasn't hard to accomplish. 

It's much tougher to sift through the growing list of quality one-loss teams to determine who should be third, fourth and beyond. And with the College Football Playoff selection committee releasing its first rankings Tuesday, this was the last chance to make an impression on those decision-makers.

The Bleacher Report Top 25 is voted on by 19 members of Bleacher Report's college football team: writers Keith Arnold, Ben Axelrod, Phil Callihan, Michael Felder, Justin Ferguson, Kyle Kensing, David Kenyon, Ben Kercheval, Adam Kramer, Brian Leigh, Brian Pedersen, Barrett Sallee, Brad Shepard, Erin Sorensen, Marc Torrence and Greg Wallace, as well as editors Eric Bowman, Hunter Mandel and Max Rausch.

Each voter submits their ballots based on observations made during the just-completed week's games. Teams receive 25 points for a first-place vote, all the way down to one point for being ranked 25th, and then the top 25 vote-getters are ranked in order of their point totals.

Check out Bleacher Report's Week 10 poll, then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

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NCAA Football Rankings 2014: Predicting the Top 25 After Week 9

Week 9 of the college football season was highlighted by LSU's 10-7 upset over Ole Miss but otherwise pretty sedate.

Ole Miss and USC were the only two teams in the Top 25 to lose. USC, like Ole Miss, lost to a team, Utah, that was also ranked in the poll. We entered the week guaranteed to see at least two ranked teams go down, and that's exactly how many we saw.  

The effect such a chalky week will have on the Associated Press Poll is likely to be minimal. Near-upsets such as Penn State-Ohio State will inform the rankings and might lead to subtle deviations, but for the most part, things should look close to the same.

Here is one man's (always ill-fated) projection: 

 Note: Rankings reflect a prediction of the Week 9 AP poll—not how the author would rank the teams himself.  

 

Teams Rising

LSU

LSU got revenge on the state of Mississippi, ending Ole Miss' undefeated season roughly a month after getting drilled by Mississippi State.

The formula by which Les Miles' team pulled the upset was a return to the SEC of yore: defense, running the ball and more defense. Never was that more true than on LSU's game-winning touchdown drive, a 13-play masterpiece that included 12 runs to just the one pass (which, of course, was how LSU scored its touchdown).

Anthony Jennings threw a pair of interceptions, and Leonard Fournette fumbled on the goal line, but the offense was propped up by an offensive line that finally performed as well as it was billed in the preseason. The ballyhooed Landsharks defense didn't just not intimidate the Tigers; it actively emboldened them to improve.

LSU might not be dead just yet.

 

Utah

Travis Wilson led Utah to a comeback win over USC, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Kaelin Clay with eight seconds left to play.

The Utes are now 6-1 with wins over legacy programs such as Michigan, UCLA and USC. If not for a loss to Washington State, we would be talking about them as a legit playoff contender.

If they win out, that might still be what they are.

Unfortunately, winning out will be highly improbable given who the Utes still have to play. Their next four games are at Arizona State, vs. Oregon, at Stanford and vs. Arizona. (Good luck with that.)

But at least for one night, Utah can sleep easy and feel like its on top of the world. It has qualified for a bowl game for the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Even if it loses the rest of its games from here, it has earned its way into the postseason from a power conference.

Good on you, Kyle Whittingham.

 

Teams Falling

Ole Miss

Ole Miss lost a close game that easily could have been a not-so-close game at LSU, falling 10-7 despite four LSU turnovers (including one goal-line fumble) and a missed field goal from 28 yards out.

Quarterback Bo Wallace had been unusually mistake-free the previous few weeks but made one of the most curious decisions you'll ever see on the last possession of the game, heaving an interception into double coverage instead of playing it safe so Ole Miss could kick a field goal that might have sent the game to overtime.

"I thought we were pretty clear we would take that flat throw or throw it out of bounds," said Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, per TJ Werre of of WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi. "[I] wish I could do it over."

 

USC

Poor, USC.

The Trojans have lost two Pac-12 games this season: one on a Hail Mary against Arizona State and now one on what might as well have been a Hail Mary against Utah. If Steve Sarkisian's team knew how to close games, it would be right in the thick of the playoff discussion. Instead, it is dropping out of the poll.

"This USC team is basically just every Sark team ever, yes?" asked Luke Zimmerman of SB Nation. The answer? A resounding and distressing, "uh-huh." Seven-win Steve has made his way to Hollywood.

It's the most depressing script that city has ever seen.

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Chaos Reigns in College Football; Good Luck, Playoff Committee

It has sat idle, waiting for the appropriate time to surface. The College Football Playoff, after plenty of debate, dissection and discussion is suddenly at our doorstep.

On Tuesday, a room of 12 human beings who have been deemed selection committee-worthy will sift through the carnage to reveal their first Top 25 ranking to the world. Only the top four matter when it comes to the playoff, although this group will also influence marquee bowl games. Plus, at this moment in time, teams well beyond the top four are still integral to the process.

Given everything that’s transpired already this season—and the madness that is certain to follow in the coming weeks—this is not a position to envy. And it never was. The College Football Playoff committee already had an impossible task. Given the results of Week 9 and quirks of this particular CFB chapter, however, the intensity has amplified. The predictable outrage to follow, as a result, will be boisterous and unruly.

With the weeks on the schedule hitting double digits and the committee preparing for its debut, there are certain items of note of as you prep for a new age in college football. Let the real madness begin.

 

What to do with Ole Miss and Others Like It

Following its 10-7 loss to LSU in Week 9, Ole Miss presents a fascinating early predicament for the selection committee. The Rebels, even with a blemish in the loss column, won’t stray too far from the top of the rankings. There’s no shame in losing a game at LSU at night, even when this Tigers team isn't as dominant as usual.

The big question surrounding Ole Miss is quite simple: Will Hugh Freeze’s team be ranked above or below Alabama, a team it beat with a tremendous second half a few short weeks ago?

Both teams have one loss, although the head-to-head matchup should serve as a rather convincing tiebreaker, especially given our still limited sample size. But timing, as it was with the BCS, can often be a critical part of this equation, which is why the Crimson Tide could very well be ranked above the Rebels. In fact, don't be shocked if/when it happens.

This is not just an Ole Miss problem. The same could be said about plenty of other teams, and the issue will only become more glaring as the matchups mount. As we try to understand how the committee works, however, we’ll have a very early look into what exactly they’re seeking—the best team or the most deserving—based on where it ranks two quality playoff contenders that have already played.

 

Where Did We Come From? And How Will This Factor?

With computers and formulas out of the equation, it has been assumed preseason polls no longer matter. We’re about to find out if this is indeed the case.

How much have things changed in nine weeks? Here’s what the AP Top 10 looked like before the season began and what it looked like before Saturdays results. You will notice some familiar faces still very much in the mix and teams that have long departed. 

For Mississippi State, which struggled (at times) with Kentucky in Week 9 before winning 45-31, being ranked outside of the Top 25 was no issue. It beat quality opponents in LSU and Auburn while operating in the nation’s best conference, which was enough to put it on the map and then some.

For a team like Arizona, however, that might not be the case. The Wildcats destroyed Washington State on the road on Saturday, continuing a rather impressive and unexpected regular-season campaign. Having started the season outside the Top 25, Arizona is the lone team to beat Oregon—on the road and off a bye no less—and lost to USC by just two points.

The same could be said about TCU. The Horned Frogs, having dropped a cool 82 points on Texas Tech this week, were 11 minutes away from an unbeaten record. Baylor had other plans. 

While you can't simply ignore TCU’s meltdown against the Bears or Arizona's loss, one has to wonder if expectations before the season began will seep into the selection process with the committee? Stay tuned.

 

The Jake Fisher and J.T. Barrett Effect 

The great unknown when it comes to the selection committee—beyond all strength-of-schedule debates and analytical assessments—is how it plans to deal with injuries, absences and rapid player development. 

Since Jake Fisher returned to Oregon’s offensive line three weeks ago, it has been a different team. This was evident in the Ducks’ 59-41 win over Cal on Friday night, along with wins over UCLA and Washington after Oregon’s only loss against Arizona.

Had Fisher played against the Wildcats, the result could have (and likely would have) been much different. We almost had a similar situation—albeit under very different circumstances—with Florida State and Jameis Winston when he was suspended for the Clemson game. Unlike Oregon, however, the Seminoles squeaked by unbeaten.

How will such losses and near losses be viewed? And will the committee give Oregon an added boost now that it is at full strength?

Ohio State’s sudden playoff life could undergo a much different assessment. At the time of the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech, quarterback J.T. Barrett was unseasoned and remarkably raw. Although he’s by no means a finished product—as we saw at times in Ohio State’s double-overtime win over Penn State in Week 9—he also flashed moments of brilliance, much like he has done over the past month.

As Virginia Tech—the lone team to beat OSU—continues to crumble, the Buckeyes continue to move up in the ranks thanks in large part to their emerging quarterback. Assessing what feels like ancient history will be another tall order for the committee when it comes to Ohio State and other extreme makeovers.

 

This is Just the Beginning

When the selection committee unveils its initial Top 25 in a few short days, it will do so knowing, thankfully, it still has so much left to learn. Weaknesses will be exposed, teams will develop—some more rapidly than others—and marquee matchups still on the docket will make the committee's task of narrowing an enormous batch of teams down to just four much easier. 

After nine weeks of chaos, there is still plenty brewing on the horizon. Here are the games that will likely have a direct impact on how the committee reacts, although as we’ve seen, it should by no means be limited to just a handful.

Chaos works in mysterious ways.

Auburn at Ole Miss (November 1): There is no time to time to sulk; Ole Miss has the opportunity to boost its playoff resume next week, while Auburn hopes to stay the course.

Stanford at Oregon (November 1): You know the history well. Stanford has the opportunity to once again derail the Ducks’ playoff hopes next weekend.

Ohio State at Michigan State (November 8): The winner will be in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten Championship and will have a relatively clear path to finish out the season with one loss.

Mississippi State at Alabama (November 15): Depending on what happens with Florida State, the winner of this game could vault to the nation’s No. 1.

Mississippi State at Ole Miss (November 29): The Rebels, even with a loss, are very much in the College Football Playoff conversation. The Egg Bowl, depending on how things play out, could serve as an early elimination game. 

Auburn at Alabama (November 29): The Iron Bowl’s importance requires no further justifying. Both teams still have significant matchups before the bitter rivals meet, although this matchup at the back end of the schedule looms. 

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Did LSU Ruin the SEC's Chances at Sending Two Teams to CFB Playoffs?

The LSU Tigers took it to the Ole Miss Rebels in a showdown to the end. This battle in Baton Rouge left many wondering which SEC teams will end up fighting in the CFB playoffs. Bleacher Report's College Football analyst Michael Felder discusses if there is still a possibility for two SEC teams to make the playoffs.

Which SEC programs do you think have a chance to make the playoffs?

Watch the video and let us know!

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USC vs. Utah: Score and Twitter Reaction

Travis Wilson and the No. 19 Utah Utes came up with a thrilling last-second 24-21 victory over No. 20 USC in Salt Lake City on Saturday night. After stifling USC on a fourth-down conversion that would have put the game away with just over two minutes remaining, Wilson led the Utes down the field and to the game-winning touchdown with just eight seconds left in the game.

It looked as if the Utes were out of this one as the Trojans seemed to be running the clock out, but the key fourth-down stop gave Utah a chance.

A huge 18-yard scramble by Wilson to the one-yard line put the Utes on the brink. Wilson again came through with a one-yard touchdown pass to Kaelin Clay that gave Utah the win.

For the game, Wilson completed 18 of 32 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers won't jump out at you, but the way he commanded the offense and showed poise down the stretch was exactly what Utah needed from its quarterback.

The team had been employing a dual-quarterback system with Wilson and Kendal Thompson. On Saturday, Wilson was who Utah needed to get by USC.

Slightly overshadowed by Wilson's exciting finish was the play of running back Devontae Booker. He continues to show consistency as he ran for 102 yards and a score. It was his fourth-straight game with 100 or more yards rushing.

The decision that Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian made to go for it on fourth down will undoubtedly be discussed all week. He didn't have confidence in kicker Andre Heidari's ability to make a 44-yard field goal. Thus on a fourth and two, Sarkisian elected to go with a pitch to Nelson Agholor.

The junior wide receiver appeared to get the first down, but he had stepped out of bounds just beyond the line of scrimmage and USC turned it over on downs. 

The win pushed Utah to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the Pac 12. USC fell to 5-3 and 4-2 in the conference. 

The Trojans wasted a strong performance from Javorious Allen. The junior running back had 101 yards on the ground. It was his seventh 100-yard game of the season.

The Trojans will attempt to rebound next week when they visit the Washington State Cougars in another Pac-12 showdown. The Utes have a major test on the road against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

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Ohio State vs. Penn State: Game Grades, Analysis for Buckeyes and Nittany Lions

Urban Meyer and No. 13 Ohio State (6-1) needed two overtimes to get the job done, but J.T. Barrett stepped up and led the way in a wild 31-24 victory over Penn State (4-3) in Happy Valley Saturday night.

The Buckeyes' Big Ten title hopes—and by extension, their College Football Playoff aspirations—remain intact with the seven-point victory. Another close loss for the Nittany Lions won't be easy to swallow, but head coach James Franklin has his team trending in the right direction.

How did Ohio State and Penn State grade out from their double-overtime thriller?

Ohio State Buckeyes Grade Analysis

Pass Offense

Barrett came into the game on an absolute tear, completing 71.7 percent of his passes while throwing 17 touchdowns against one interception in the last four games. But Meyer kept things conservative early as Barrett hit just seven of nine passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Things went downhill in the second half, though, as the redshirt freshman signal-caller threw two costly interceptions. One was returned for a touchdown, while the other was cashed in for seven points by the Penn State offense. 

 

Run Offense

If not for Ohio State's run offense, the Buckeyes would have likely suffered their second loss of the season. Ezekiel Elliott paced Ohio State early before finishing with 109 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Barrett was a non-factor after a big first quarter until he broke out in overtime, carrying the ball four times for 32 yards and accounting for both of the Buckeyes' touchdowns down the stretch. 

 

Pass Defense

Facing one of the Big Ten's most dangerous passers, Ohio State's secondary shut down Christian Hackenberg. The Buckeyes surrendered just 224 passing yards to the Nittany Lions and came away with two interceptions. One of those picks, which came in the first quarter via Vonn Bell, should have been reversed, though. But a glitchy review system gave the Buckeyes the turnover, and the offense cashed that in on the ensuing drive with a touchdown run from Elliott.

Joey Bosa fueled an inspired defensive effort, registering 2.5 sacks, one of which ended the game in double overtime. 

 

Run Defense

The Buckeyes completely shut down the Penn State run game, forcing the Nittany Lions offense into a one-dimensional attack. After gaining just 11 rushing yards in the first half, things got no easier for Penn State in the second half and overtime as the team finished with just 16 rushing yards. That came from 16 carries—meaning the Buckeyes surrendered just 0.5 yards per rush attempt Saturday night.

 

Special Teams

It was an up-and-down night for Ohio State's special teams. Jalin Marshall made a number of boneheaded decisions as a punt returner, but Cameron Johnson had a nice night, averaging 45 yards on six punts. Freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger connected on a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter and missed a 41-yard attempt in the third.

With the importance Meyer places on special teams, it's safe to assume he'll be hounding his specialists this week in practice. 

 

Coaching

Defensively, Ohio State's staff called a brilliant game. The unit bogged down a bit in the fourth quarter, but on the whole, the Buckeyes were playing fast and fundamental defense because the scheme and play-calling encouraged that. The offense, however, didn't have its best game. Tom Herman is going to have to find better ways to keep the chains moving when opposing defenses take away what Ohio State wants to do. If the Buckeyes fail to adjust like they did against Penn State in the future, it'll be hard to come away with another victory. 

Penn State Nittany Lions Grade Analysis

Pass Offense

Hackenberg had a rough night against the Buckeyes, throwing for just 224 yards despite tossing 49 passes. He was picked off twice, and one of his top targets in Geno Lewis hauled in just one pass for 11 yards. DaeSean Hamilton had a big night, bringing in 14 catches for 126 yards, but the offense failed to connect on a pass of more than 25 yards. 

 

Run Offense

Penn State's beleaguered offensive line failed to open any consistent holes for the running backs as the run offense crumpled against Ohio State. Akeel Lynch was the most productive runner, gaining 38 yards on 13 carries. Bill Belton struggled, turning eight carries into nine yards, but he did score Penn State's only rushing touchdown out of the Wildcat formation in overtime. 

The running back's marginal production was negated by Hackenberg and Hamilton, who combined for minus-30 yards rushing. 

 

Pass Defense

The Nittany Lions secondary was the team's best unit on Saturday night, limiting the high-flying Buckeyes to a season-low 74 passing yards. Penn State came away with two interceptions (both of which were definitely interceptions), and the front seven created constant pressure whenever Barrett dropped back.

 

Run Defense

Penn State came into the game with the nation's top run defense, but the unit was gashed by the Buckeyes. Ohio State's offensive line paved the way for Elliott, who consistently found holes between the tackles. In overtime, the Nittany Lions were confounded by Barrett, who kept the ball on most zone-read situations with great success. Despite allowing an average of 60.8 rushing yards per game coming in, the Nittany Lions gave up 219 to the Buckeyes. 

 

Special Teams

Much like Ohio State, Penn State had an uneven showing from its special teams. Sam Ficken was clutch in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, drilling a 31-yard field goal to force overtime. But punters Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello had a rough night, combining to average just 34.5 yards per attempt while only pinning the Buckeyes inside the 20 once. 

 

Coaching

Penn State came into the game as 15-point underdogs, according to Odds Shark, and it certainly looked the part in the first half. But Franklin turned things around in the second half and overtime, as his team scored 17 unanswered points in the second half to force overtime and the first seven to put the pressure on Ohio State.

But the Nittany Lions were outplayed in the overtime session as the Buckeyes just steamrolled their way to victory on the ground. That's not a coaching issue—it's a personnel disadvantage. Once the Nittany Lions regain their depth, Franklin will build a monster in Happy Valley. 

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Legend of Les Miles Grows as LSU Somehow Reenters Playoff Conversation

BATON ROUGE, La.—Les Miles has done it again. 

Miles' Tigers defeated No. 3 Ole Miss in the most Miles way — a low-scoring backyard brawl with his Tigers edging it out late. 

And Miles watched all of this take place with a heavy heart. 

Miles' mother, Martha, passed away on Friday night. Despite the tragic loss, he attended the team meeting the same evening and participated in all the activities on Saturday. 

"After the game, I can't tell you the number of young men that threw arms around me to tell me that they loved me. It was touching as anything I've had happen," said Miles. 

The players said they felt Miles' emotion.

"We wanted to win this one for him," said LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette. 

Miles responded with one of the best coaching efforts in his illustrious LSU career. 

The Tigers were the better team on Saturday night. They outgained the unbeaten Rebels by almost 100 yards and had the ball for nearly 11 more minutes. All of this after Miles admitted he cost his team the game against the Rebels last season, per The Daily Reveille

LSU enforced its will against Ole Miss in the trenches, which is vintage Miles. The Rebels' No. 1 scoring defense allowed only 97 rushing yards per game coming into Saturday. The Tigers bludgeoned them with 264 yards on the ground. 

"They just wore us down and kept the ball from us," said Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze after the game. "That offensive line is really solid, and their backs are really good. That's the first time we've faced an offense quite like that."

Despite the Tigers' prolific performance, they still needed some Miles magic late to win. 

The Tigers were backed up on their own 5-yard line, trailing 7-3 in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Anthony Jennings struggled getting anything going through the air, so Miles trusted his ground game to pull LSU through. 

Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would call 12 rushes that moved the ball 92 yards. Then on 2nd-and-goal from Ole Miss' 3-yard line, tight end Logan Stokes caught an open play-action pass from Jennings for the game-winning score.

The drive featured gaping holes from the much-improved LSU offensive line and broken tackles by running backs Fournette and Kenny Hilliard. Stokes said he saw the Rebels begin to break.

"I did feel them start to wear down," said Stokes. 

LSU's performance on Saturday night showed that the Tigers can beat Alabama in two weeks. The Crimson Tide and the Tigers both will be coming off bye weeks and three-game winning streaks. 

LSU's defense will have the challenge of defending Alabama's Heisman hopeful Amari Cooper and a powerful Crimson Tide running game. But the Bayou Bengals have the hottest defense in the conference, as it has allowed its last two opponents to score only a combined 10 points.

All LSU needs to do it is keep it close and give themselves a chance. There are few coaches with better results than Miles in close games.

LSU is 24-23 under Les Miles when trailing in the 4th quarter, the only FBS team with a record over .500 in that scenario since 2005.

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 26, 2014

LSU will also be at home, which will certainly play a factor. The fans were raucous against the Rebels after Miles pleaded with them during the week to stay for the entire game. The Tiger faithful was rewarded by being allowed to storm the field after the victory. 

Earlier shot of #LSU fans rushing the field I couldn't tweet out because of stupid @DeadlineMonkey: pic.twitter.com/ci907xmYKI

— Ross Dellenger (@DellengerAdv) October 26, 2014

Miles knows his own habitat is a special place. 

"One thing about these Tigers: If you put them in Tiger Stadium, and give us a little time to fix things, we are going to be very special," said Miles. 

If the Tigers defeat the Crimson Tide in the Death Valley, they would be back in playoff contention. LSU would need plenty of help, but anything can happen in college football.

All it takes is for the College Football Playoff Committee to think the Tigers are amongst the four best teams in the country. It is not out of the question for two SEC West teams to make the final four.

And no coach in the country is better at winning national championships with two losses than Miles. 

 

Stats, rankings and additional information provided by cfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information. Recruiting information provided by 247Sports.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter @CarterthePower.

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Gus Malzahn Saves Auburn's Season by Opening Up the Playbook

AUBURN, Ala. — Two of the SEC's greatest offensive minds collided Saturday night in a battle of wits, explosive offenses and trademark visors.

In a game that featured 77 points and 1,086 yards of total offense, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn emerged victorious against his counterpart and good friend, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, by pulling out all the creative stops in a wild 42-35 victory.

"Their coach is one of the better coaches to walk the sideline," Malzahn said. "Everybody saw that tonight. They did a lot of good things, but, at the end of the day, our guys found a way to win it."

Spurrier went back to his Florida Fun 'n' Gun ways with a devastating passing attack that featured 10 different receivers and a no-punt attitude with five fourth-down conversions.

"They went for everything," Malzahn said. "That was the hard thing. They executed when they had to, and they did it time and time again. That is the reason it was a close game and the reason it went down to the very end."

Malzahn countered with a steady diet of read-option runs between quarterback Nick Marshall and primary running back Cameron Artis-Payne, but the second-year head coach didn't stop there.

Auburn had five different rushers record a carry, with three of them finding the end zone.

The Tigers handed the ball off to wide receiver Ricardo Louis—a former running back in his high school days—three times for 102 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter. ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf shared Louis' "one-play" drive:

"[A balanced rushing attack] just helps us get the offense going, get the team going and get us some momentum," Louis said. "Everybody is good at different things, and when you're giving the ball to different types of people...it helps us out a lot moving forward."

Auburn also featured true freshman running back Roc Thomas early in the game, even using him in dual-back formations with fellow speedster Corey Grant.

Thomas helped the Tigers move the ball downfield by showcasing his burst into the second level.

"We have a great backfield, and we've also got great coaches," Thomas said. "That leads us to a lot of success."

The creative uses of Louis, Thomas and Grant against South Carolina opened up more opportunities for Marshall and Artis-Payne by keeping the Gamecocks off balance.

Their performances helped Artis-Payne set a career high of 167 rushing yards on 25 carries, while Marshall carried the ball for three touchdowns for the first time in his tenure on the Plains.

"That's great for the whole team," Artis-Payne said. "We've got a lot of different guys who bring a lot of different things to the table. We've got a lot of great runners when they've got the ball in their hands. You've got to get everybody in the mix who can help your team."

Auburn's 395 yards on the ground off an expanded playbook and supporting cast put less pressure on the athletic Marshall to make most of his plays through the air.

After struggling with his accuracy two weeks ago against Mississippi State, the senior was able to thrive in a run-first role, but his passing also received a boost:

Marshall's completion percentage against South Carolina was his best since the 2013 Arkansas game, when he completed seven of eight passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. His 85.7 percent mark on Saturday night was a career-best in games in which he threw double-digit passes.

"It feels great to have that, because we got back to playing Auburn football," Marshall said. "During the bye week, we went back to the basics and focused on getting back our edge on offense."

Keeping with the creative theme of Saturday night's shootout with South Carolina, Marshall's lone touchdown pass was to a surprise target—Brandon Fulse.

The senior H-back had only recorded five career catches before Saturday, and his short touchdown grab late in the first quarter put Auburn on the scoreboard and his name into the scoring books for the first time. SEC Network highlighted the Marshall-Fulse play, which resulted in a touchdown:

"Brandon has been a factor up to this point," Malzahn said. "That's what they were giving us...we saw that he was open, so we came back and checked that. He had a good touchdown."

One of the best days of Marshall's career also featured a rare catch.

Late in the second quarter, Auburn sent in third-string quarterback Jonathan Wallace and lined him up on the outside. Marshall took the snap and tossed it to the former starter, who looked deep down the field before tossing it back to Marshall on a throw-back screen.

Marshall was able to show off his open-field abilities after the catch and fought his way for an important first down. Four plays later, he tied the game up with a rushing touchdown.

"They were playing man-to-man," Malzahn said. "That's a play we've had up and running for the last month, and we've repped it 50 times, so we felt pretty confident. That was a big third-down play for us."

In a game that the Tigers offense needed to keep pace with a legendary offensive head coach who was playing like he had nothing to lose, Malzahn was able to stay a step ahead of Spurrier.

The Tigers used the off week to work on a few special plays while improving across the board on offense.

"Each moment you play, you have to strategically figure out the best plan," Malzahn said. "We felt like we needed to get in those situations with second downs and 3rd-and-shorts. That was part of the plan."

Continuing that theme of creativity and control will be important in the next few weeks for the Tigers, who will face a stingy Ole Miss defense next week in Oxford.

If Auburn can clear that hurdle, then it will be closer to capturing that important spot in the inaugural playoff—a spot that was in jeopardy Saturday night against Spurrier and Co.

"You can't get down on yourself when a team comes to play," Artis-Payne said. "We knew that they were going to be coming in here ready for us, prepared for us. It's just about execution at that point."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Ohio State, J.T. Barrett​ Not Ready for Michigan State

Following his successful call to score a touchdown when a knee to run out the clock would have sufficed in Michigan State's 35-11 win over Michigan on Saturday, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio admitted that he was attempting to make a statement.

"I just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said, via Ralph D. Russo of The Associated Press, via ABC News.

And why not? After all, Saturday's battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy was Michigan State's last chance to make an exclamation point before a bye week precedes its Nov. 8 showdown with Ohio State.

But if this weekend was about punctuation marks, then the Buckeyes' 31-24 double-overtime win over Penn State could best be described as an ellipsis. Because, while Ohio State will likely head to East Lansing with a 7-1 record in tow, its latest effort made it clear that there's still much to be determined about this Buckeyes team.

Sure, Ohio State managed to head into one of the most hostile environments in the country and beat one of the nation's highest-ranked defenses with an injured freshman quarterback leading the way. But for much of the game, the Buckeyes looked less like the team that scored an average of 56 points in its previous four games, and more like the one that suffered a now-embarrassing loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6.

"We've got a lot of work to do as we continue this journey," OSU head coach Urban Meyer put it to ESPN's Holly Rowe after the game.

Quarterback J.T. Barrett reverted from being one of the hottest players in the country to looking like an overwhelmed freshman, throwing two crucial interceptions, including a pick-six to Nittany Lions defensive lineman Anthony Zettel to start the second half. If you were upset you didn't get in on Barrett's 50-1 Heisman Trophy odds before they shrunk to 20-1 this past week, don't worry, they should be back in the value-bet range very soon.

Although he certainly played a big part in it, Barrett wasn't the only one who contributed to the underwhelming nature of Ohio State's most recent win. Facing the best defensive line they've seen since their defeat at the hands of the Hokies, the Buckeyes' offensive line struggled with consistency after pushing around undermanned fronts from Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers in the past month.

"J.T. had a tough day," Meyer said. "But we also had a tough day protecting him against a real good D-line."

Ohio State's play-calling also left much to be desired, although that may have been due to a sprained knee suffered by Barrett heading into halftime. Nevertheless, Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman appeared to be coaching inside of a shared shell, attempting 57 rushes compared to just 19 passes.

"We wanted to drop back and throw," Meyer admitted. "We had some issues upfront. We gotta get that cleaned up."

Regardless of the reason why, play-calling that appeared conservative in the first half only got safer in the second, allowing Penn State to climb back into the game and ultimately force overtime. Multiple 3rd-and-1 attempts by both Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott were stuffed up the middle, as if the Nittany Lions knew what was coming before the ball was even snapped.

"I didn't like the way we went about business in the second half," Meyer said. "We have to re-evaluate some things."

That's something to keep an eye on moving forward, as the Buckeyes' play-calling also clammed up in last season's Big Ten Championship Game loss to Michigan State. Speaking of the Spartans, while they enjoy a week off, Ohio State will host 4-4 Illinois in a game that the rest of the nation will surely see as a mere warm-up to the biggest game on the Buckeyes' schedule.

Ever since last season's conference title game ended, all roads from Columbus have led to East Lansing and what appears to still be a de facto Big Ten East championship game on Nov. 8. Week 2 hiccups from both Ohio State and Michigan State threatened that notion, but both appear to be back on track, despite the Buckeyes' close call in Happy Valley.

That leaves Ohio State with two weeks and one game to get ready for the Spartans, with Barrett's health being Meyer's top concern and improving his offense line being priority 1B.

That's not to say that there weren't positives for the Buckeyes to take away from their most recent win—defensive end Joey Bosa has almost single-handedly improved the Ohio State defense, and Elliott rushed for 109 yards against the nation's top run defense—but this hardly looked like a team ready for its season-defining game.

And that's OK for the Buckeyes—at least for now.

Maybe lessons learned in State College will carry over to their meeting with Michigan State. Maybe momentum regained against the Fighting Illini will carry over into the following week. Maybe after four straight blowouts, Ohio State was just due for one bad game.

We don't know, and we won't know until the Buckeyes board their plane back to Columbus from Spartan Stadium. But what we do know is that even after Saturday, Ohio State remains in the hunt for the first-ever College Football Playoff but will need to improve in the next two weeks in order to stay there.

"The objective has been from Day 1 has been to compete for a championship in November," Meyer said. "Check off another one and get ready to go next 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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Is Hugh Freeze's Final Play Call to Blame If Ole Miss Doesn't Make CFB Playoffs?

Ole Miss Head Coach Hugh Freeze made some questionable play calls during the final drive of the Rebels' disappointing 10-7 loss to LSU on Saturday. Bleacher Report's College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer debate whether Freeze made the right decision.

Do you think he called the right plays on their final drive?

Watch the video and let us know!

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College Football Playoff Projections After Week 9

With Ole Miss losing to LSU, the College Football Playoff got a Saturday night shakeup. The other top teams continue to look dominant, but now the debate of the one-loss teams begins to heat up. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Adam Kramer gives you his teams in and teams out. 

Who are your four teams in the College Football Playoff?

Watch the video and let us know!

 

 

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College Football Playoff Rankings: Biggest Takeaways from Week 9

The College Football Playoff committee will have its first in-season meeting Sunday before releasing its first rankings. When these rankings are unveiled Tuesday night (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), they will obliterate the polls and all other ratings systems in terms of relevance.

And that's not necessarily a good thing.

Because of that, the rest of the season will be played out in a horse race fashion. Instead of shifting the paradigm on how teams should be evaluated as the CFP so loftily promised, we're back to business as usual. Instead of the polls and the now-defunct BCS standings, we'll have a new rankings system fashioned by not hundreds, but 12 individuals.

Maybe the committee will surprise us with rankings radically different from the polls. But the hunch here is that they won't be. We will find out for sure Tuesday night.

 

Teams That Moved Up

Mississippi State

How does the No. 1-ranked team move up? Simple, at this point, we don't know who's really No. 1, at least in the eyes of the committee. The Bulldogs survived a spirited challenge by Kentucky and will be further buoyed by the loss suffered by in-state rival Ole Miss. By any reasonable measure, Mississippi State should be No. 1 in the inaugural CFP rankings.

 

Michigan State

The other MSU also had a good day, thanks to a severe beatdown the Spartans administered to its own in-state rival. Mark Dantonio scored an oh-by-the-way touchdown late in the game just to make a point (or seven) about how tired he was of the "little brother" nonsense. The Spartans are clearly the class of the Big Ten, and they're making a serious push for a playoff spot.

 

Oregon

Will the committee remember that Oregon actually beat Michigan State by 19? We'll find out Tuesday. The Ducks have recovered from their own hiccup—a loss against then-unbeaten Arizona—and are rolling through the Pac-12, averaging nearly 49 points per game in their last three victories. They represent the conference's best shot of making the playoff but are certainly not the only one with a chance.

 

TCU

If it weren't for the meltdown in the last 11 minutes of their game against Baylor, the Horned Frogs would be near the top of any rankings. As it is, TCU likely will be the top Big 12 team ranked by the committee. Since the Big 12 does not have a championship game, the Horned Frogs can claim a piece of the conference title by winning out—and they'd be best positioned to earn a playoff spot.

 

Teams That Moved Down

Ole Miss

While the gut-wrenching defeat in Death Valley doesn't necessarily snuff out the Rebels' playoff chances, they'll have lots of catching up to do. The loss to LSU was just a major blown opportunity, as Ole Miss will get both Auburn and Mississippi State at home. The silver lining is that the Rebels can still take the SEC West simply by winning out.

 

East Carolina

The Pirates labored to beat a 1-6 UConn team at home in a nationally televised Thursday game, and that's not good for the optics. And their big wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina earlier in the season are losing their luster as both teams have struggled lately and are just 4-4. ECU is still on track to win the American, but it does not have a firm grip on the Group-of-Five spot.

 

ACC

Florida State, as one of just two unbeaten power-five teams, is a lock for a playoff spot if it wins out. But should the Seminoles stumble anywhere the rest of the way, then it's game-over for the ACC. The only other conference team with fewer than two losses is Duke, and no team other than FSU is remotely in the conversation for a playoff spot.

Good thing the ACC has a guaranteed Orange Bowl berth.

 

AP Poll

The most venerable poll in college football survived a challenge from the BCS standings, now it must contend with the committee rankings. Starting Tuesday, it will be rendered irrelevant for the rest of the season—unless it crowns a different champion from the one that wins the four-team playoff. That's happened just once in the 16-year BCS era and is highly improbable in the CFP era.

 

Group-of-Five Team in the Best Position

Marshall, as one of only three unbeaten FBS teams, might be edging ahead of East Carolina in the group-of-five dogfight. Although the Herd have not faced any team in the power-five conferences, their smallest margin of victory in their seven wins was by 15, in the season opener against Miami of Ohio.

The team with the best resume so far is Colorado State, with wins over Boston College and Colorado, but the Rams need help to even win their division, as their loss to Boise State now stands as the tiebreaker. The two-loss Broncos are still in the mix, as is Central Florida, which will face ECU in the regular-season finale to perhaps decide the American title.

 

Projected Conference Championship Matchups

ACC: Florida State vs. Duke

Big Ten: Michigan State vs. Wisconsin

Pac-12: Oregon vs. Arizona

SEC: Mississippi State vs. Georgia

 

Follow on Twitter @ThePlayoffGuru

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Is Alabama the Best Team in the Country?

Alabama won convincingly over Tennessee on Saturday by a 34-20 score. The Crimson Tide have been on a roll since losing to Ole Miss earlier in the season, and they are looking like one of the best teams, if not the best team in the country. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer discuss whether Alabama has returned to the peak of college football.

Who is the best team in college football right now?

Watch the video and let us know!

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JT Barrett Injury: Updates on Ohio St. Star's Knee and Recovery

Many wondered how No. 13 Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead in the Buckeyes' 31-24 double-overtime win over the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday. Head coach Urban Meyer may have provided at least a partial reason.

According to Matt Brown of Sports on Earth, OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett sprained his knee as the second quarter wound down:

Barrett finished the game 12-of-19 for 74 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He added 75 yards and two TDs on the ground. Former Buckeye Dustin Fox thought that the freshman didn't perform well but that playing in Happy Valley provided invaluable experience going forward:

Meyer and the Buckeyes will obviously hope that Barrett's injury is only minor. The team is already down a quarterback after Braxton Miller was ruled out for the entire season back in August.

Ohio State plays No. 8 Michigan State on Nov. 8 in a matchup that will likely decide the winner of the Big Ten East. The Bucks will want to have their starting QB on the field for such a crucial game.

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