Sports Pulse: Will the Pac-12 be able to overcome the delayed start? We talk to Paul Myerberg about a couple of teams in this conference who may have a chance at making the playoff.
Indiana entered this season a combined 2-61 since 1968 against Penn State and Michigan. The power structure in the Big Ten is clear and longstanding: Indiana occupies a rung well below the Nittany Lions and Wolverines, two of college football’s well-established bluebloods.
But not in 2020. This unpredictable and uncertain season has seen Indiana already notch victories against these two longtime bullies, setting the Hoosiers on pace for the program’s most successful season since the 1967 team won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl.
And while beating Penn State two weeks ago took overtime and a memorable dive into the end zone by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the Hoosiers’ 38-21 victory against Michigan on Saturday was a more thorough dismantling of an opponent only two weeks removed from being toasted as the Big Ten’s biggest threat to Ohio State.
Indiana gained 460 yards of offense, eliminated Michigan’s running game and dominated the time of possession. After throwing for 342 yards and three touchdowns, Penix should come in right behind Justin Fields as the league’s strongest contenders for the Heisman.
The Hoosiers’ collection of skill talent — Penix, Ty Fryfogle, Whop Philyor and Peyton Hendershot, to name a few, and yes, those are all real names — further exposed Michigan as a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten and a laughably overrated contender for the College Football Playoff.
For the second week in a row, serious questions will be raised concerning coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, which began with such great promise but seems to be crumbling under the weight of extreme expectations. But those expectations might not be too outlandish.
Michigan might not be expected to beat Ohio State on annual basis, though once would be nice. The baseline is to beat Indiana, which hadn’t won in this series since 1987 and had lost 39 of the past 40 to the Wolverines. These are dark days in Ann Arbor.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers:
Beating Clemson 47-40 is validation for this specific Notre Dame team, which despite rising to No. 4 in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll had not been given the same sort of credibility handed to the Tigers, Alabama and Ohio State. While another game against Clemson awaits in the ACC championship game, the big payoff from Saturday night is in the ability it gives the Irish to lose that rematch and still have a strong case for the top four at one loss.
Georgia scored on the game’s first play and then again less than five minutes later, painting the Gators as overmatched and outclassed in this rivalry game with major SEC and playoff implications. Quickly, Florida dug out of that early hole and then pulled away late in the first half to win 44-28 and grab control of the SEC East, setting up the strong possibility of a meeting with Alabama next month to determine a spot in the national semifinals. Quarterback Kyle Trask threw for 474 yards and four touchdowns to become the first player in SEC history to have at least four touchdown passes in five straight games.
Pushed around for the first two quarters and playing without star receiver Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State outscored Kansas State 20-6 in the second half and won 20-18 to remain the only realistic playoff contender in the Big 12. The loss is a complete gut punch for the Wildcats, who had two chances in the fourth quarter to take the lead or force overtime. One drive, with the score 13-12, ended in a fumble the Cowboys returned for a touchdown. Kansas State scored on the ensuing possession but failed to convert the two-point attempt.
After beating Nebraska 21-13, the Wildcats are 3-0 for the first time since 2000 and surging to the top of the West division. On the heels of last year’s disappointing finish, one of the keys to this hot start has been the play of the Northwestern defense, especially in the second half. After blanking Nebraska coming out of the locker room, the Wildcats have yet to allow a point in the second half this season. (The less said about the Cornhuskers’ woes on offense the better.)
The Flames are now 7-0 under coach Hugh Freeze after nailing a 51-yard field goal in the final seconds to beat Virginia Tech 38-35. Technically, the win qualifies as a significant upset: Liberty was a two-touchdown underdog despite having an offense ranked in the top 20 nationally and being two games removed from winning 38-21 at Syracuse. This second victory against an ACC opponent gives Liberty an unquestioned case for the Amway Coaches Poll and raises the odds that Freeze will get another shot to run his own program on the Power Five level.
Texas will remain in the thick of the Big 12 chase after winning 17-13 against West Virginia. Unlike in last week’s shootout victory against Oklahoma State, the defense was the driving force behind the Longhorns’ third straight win: Texas gave up just 3.9 yards per play and made several key stops in the fourth quarter. Largely dismissed after losing to Oklahoma last month, the Longhorns are 4-2 in Big 12 play with games ahead against Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State.
The Aggies cruised to a 48-3 win against South Carolina, to little surprise, but the bigger development might’ve been Georgia’s loss to Florida. While basically eliminating Georgia from the playoff chase, Florida’s win is to the Aggies’ benefit — since A&M beat Florida 41-38 last month, the Aggies may be ranked ahead of the Gators in the Amway Coaches Poll and the first playoff rankings.
This is going to be a lost season for Penn State, which is now a shocking 0-3 after losing 35-19 to Maryland. The run of offseason opt-outs and injuries, which included linebacker Micah Parsons and running back Journey Brown, are the main cause of the decline. But while that explains last week’s loss to Ohio State, which already held a distinct edge in talent, what’s the story with a one-sided loss to the Terrapins? That may be more a result of a team with major preseason hopes suddenly wondering what’s at stake after opening with two losses in a row.
Losing 41-17 to Pittsburgh represents another step back for Florida State, which has now dropped two straight by at least 24 points after upsetting North Carolina last month. Reeling heading into the weekend, having lost four straight after a 3-0 start, the Panthers forced three interceptions and held the Seminoles’ offense in check — 88 of the Seminoles’ 290 yards of offense came on one play — to drop FSU to 2-5 in coach Mike Norvell’s first season.
Up 27-14 on Southern California in a game that would give the winner a major edge in the race for the South Division championship, the Sun Devils allowed two touchdowns in the final three minutes to lose 28-27. With just six games scheduled before the conference championship — and the Pac-12 may be lucky to get that, as we’ll see — the head-to-head tiebreaker will make it difficult for ASU to make up ground on USC and contend for a New Year’s Six bowl.
The Spartans are riding the roller coaster under first-year coach Mel Tucker. After losing the opener to Rutgers, Michigan State rebounded with last week’s upset of Michigan. Fresh off that statement, the Spartans had three turnovers, allowed 226 yards rushing and lost 49-7 to previously winless Iowa.
This predates Saturday, to be honest, but the Pac-12 debut weekend crumbled late this week with two cancellations: California against Washington, which was to pit two teams under top-25 consideration, and Utah against Arizona. Given the lack of time to reschedule games and fill out an already abbreviated season, these cancellations are a painful reminder of how difficult it will be for the Pac-12 as a conference to play enough games to factor into the playoff debate. That USC survived to beat Arizona State is a major positive, however.